By Natalia Jorquera and Jamie Roberton: ITV News
The government has been urged to intervene to tackle the dramatic rise in the number of very young children – some aged just three - who are self-harming.
Teachers and mental health workers have told ITV News they are regularly seeing children punch and scratch themselves, bang their heads against walls and aggressively pull out their own hair.
They say it is an untold story and one that requires critical attention, with a 27% jump in hospital admissions for self-harm by children aged three to nine in England in just five years.
“We're not mental health specialists; we're on the frontline and we do our absolute best but we need more resources,” says Liz Wilson, a teacher based in Birmingham.
She describes a constant battle to get help for the children who need it - one which almost always ends in defeat due to a lack of money.
“Over half of the cases of self-harm that we find in schools are not given the appropriate resources and intervention because the schools don't have the funding to deal with the issue.”
Suzanne Skeete, a mental health worker, believes early intervention is vital in preventing long-term damage.
Skeete recalls a harrowing case in which an eight-year-old girl did not receive the immediate help that she needed, causing her problem to not only exasperate but also spread to others.
“She started off using rubbers, then it went through to blades and she ended up picking broken glass off the floor.
“But I think what most startled me is, her class has 25 children in there - 13 of those children were self-harming.
"They were showing each other how to do it better, how to hide it, so people couldn't see.”
Skeete runs Tappy Twins, an organisation that sends counsellors into schools and nurseries across the country to provide therapy for children.
More than 500 primary school children have been referred to Tappy Twins; Skeete currently has a waiting list full of four to 11 year olds.
“The youngest one that I've dealt with has been three years old of self-harm; it is a big misconception that it's teenagers and older - it's a huge issue amongst the younger children in primary school.”
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Young children who self-harm may have witnessed domestic violence at home or are struggling to cope with the strain of exams, peer pressure and social media once they start school, Sharon Branagh, a behaviour therapist, says.
“Most people think of self-harm as cutting, but in younger children we're looking for signs of perhaps odd bruising or scarring, maybe burning themselves with straighteners, eating too much, eating too little - there is lots of different forms of self-harm particularly for the younger age it can be any of those behaviours.
“The warning signs to look out for are maybe being withdrawn, covering their bodies, not talking about things, hiding things, hiding themselves, hiding any instruments that they might be using to hurt themselves with.”
Mental health professionals like Skeete and Branagh are calling for every primary school teacher and nursery worker to be trained to spot the signs that a very young child may be self-harming.
Luciana Berger, the Labour MP and prominent mental health campaigner, told ITV News: "These are children in crisis and they should never have to be admitted to hospital because of self-harm - everything should be done to prevent it but also intervene earlier to give that child the best start in life.
"Children's and young people's mental health services are under an incredible strain and they are just not able to treat and support all the children that need help across our country."
The government is currently consulting on its green paper on children and young people’s mental health.
Ministers want every school to have a designated lead for mental health by 2025, while also improving the links between schools and NHS services.
But Liz Wilson says her and her colleagues need extra support immediately as well as firm assurances that government plans will be fully funded.
“It sounds in theory like a good idea but we need to make sure that it's properly funded so schools receive those resources so that initiative can really make a difference.”
Responding to our story, a government spokesperson told ITV News: “Our national suicide prevention strategy addresses self-harm as an issue in its own right. This is backed by a Government pledge of an additional £1.4 billion to help promote, protect and improve children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing.
“Our proposals outlined in the children and young people’s mental health green paper will provide significant additional resources for early mental health intervention for all schools.
"This includes improving the links between the NHS and schools, speeding up access to more intensive support, as well as boosting capacity to ensure early intervention and help schools to decide what other support to provide.”
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