Over the course of the pandemic, mental health in the UK has worsened by 8.1%, with young people and women most affected as the groups who already had been struggling with mental health issues prior to the outbreak of COVID-19.
We know from emerging research that self-harm referrals and presentations at A&E departments temporarily dropped (by around 40%) during lockdowns before returning to typical levels. This may have been due to increased anxiety about using hospital services and reduced clinical contact. However, a UCL COVID-19 Social Study found that the rates of self-harm have remained consistent since the first UK lockdown, with up to 4% of people indicating that they had self-harmed in the previous week. It’s important to note that not all those who self-harm will report it, therefore these statistics are likely to be higher in actuality.
As of January 2022, there are an estimated 57.60 million social media users in the UK. This is an increase of 6.9 million people since the beginning of the pandemic. Furthermore, we’ve seen a 200% increase in the use of mental health-related apps and the use of such apps to help prevent incidents of self-harm has increased by 76%.
This article explains how young people may be using technology and peer support to cope with difficult feelings and self-harm behaviours. See the end of the article for practical advice and guidance for parents and safeguarding professionals to support children and young people with their mental health.
What is Self-Harm?
Self-harm is fundamentally an attempt to cope with and control intense, difficult, and distressing feelings or thought patterns.
It includes any activity that intentionally injures the body such as cutting, burning, picking, high risk sexual or drug use behaviours and excessive exercise or eating restrictions.
Self-harm can be a distressing topic for parents, carers and safeguarding professionals to think about, but it is worth being clear that self-harm behaviours are less about ‘seeking attention’ and more of a signal and ‘cry for help’.
Most self-harm will happen in secret and usually comes with feelings of guilt and shame.
Motivations are complex but young people report feeling a release or punishing themselves.
This release is only temporary and when difficult feelings appear again, so too can the urge to engage in self-harm behaviours. This can cause a difficult cycle of high-risk behaviours to manage feelings.
What is Peer Support?
Peer support is when young people living with a mental health condition or other complex needs and difficulties support each other with advice, empathy and a listening ear. It can be a vital lifeline for many young people and can help them build independence, resilience and healthier coping mechanisms.
Young people may use message boards, habit tracking apps and social media to share information about their mental health. The increase in this use of technology for peer support is an indicator of how the pandemic has impacted traditional support services which have been restricted for many young people.
We want to make sure that safeguarding professionals and parents are aware of the different types of support young people may seek out within digital spaces. Where young people are unable to speak about issues in their lives, peer support may be their only way to cope.
Can peer support make things worse?
While there may be real benefits in peer support from sharing coping skills, resilience tips and distraction techniques for a young person, our research indicates that there may be some negative factors.
Analysts found posts where young people were clearly struggling with their mental health and speaking about distressing thoughts.
These posts were met with encouraging statements and motivational quotes but the volume of posts from young people could easily be overwhelming.
These interactions may create a feeling of solidarity and validation but it could in fact be triggering for a young person, whereby they compare their progress or emotional state to others.
In some cases, young people may also share methods or tools for self-harm behaviours.
Young people may also be left feeling vulnerable and exposed after sharing intensely personal feelings and thoughts.
They may also develop unhealthy habits of ruminating on difficult feelings or experiences which may be counterproductive in their attempts to cope and seek support.
The importance of appropriate supports
We understand the value of peer support and where appropriate, this should be encouraged alongside existing professional mental health support for children and young people.
There may be additional complexities where a child or young person who has sought support in online spaces does not get a response or receives negative feedback, which might discourage them from seeking further help. It is important to recognise that there is no way to establish the quality of information or advice they receive.
If you are aware of young people using technology to share or cope with difficult feelings or circumstances it is helpful to discuss the value it has for them and what other supports they can use alongside it.