Rising trend of self-harm among the young

More teenagers are cutting themselves on their arms or legs in an attempt to cope with emotional stress or frustration.
More teenagers are cutting themselves on their arms or legs in an attempt to cope with emotional stress or frustration.PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

Data shows more boys, younger kids cutting themselves on arms, legs to cope with stress

More teenagers are cutting themselves on their arms or legs in an attempt to cope with emotional stress or frustration.

The trend of self-harming is also becoming apparent in younger children and in an increasing number of boys, according to new data from the Singapore Children's Society. Fifty teens reported self-harming last year, up from 44 in 2013 and 36 a decade ago.

The proportion aged 14 and below was 66 per cent in 2013 and 60 per cent last year, compared to 56 per cent in 2005.

Last year, 36 per cent of those who injured themselves were boys, up from 28 per cent in 2005.

Meanwhile, the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) has seen more people calling its hotline and e-mailing about self-harm behaviour, though it does not track the number of cases, as callers remain anonymous.

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The generation today is under a lot more stress to achieve and do well - not just academically but in their social status, peer groups and family units.

DR CAROL BALHETCHET, senior director for youth services at the Singapore Children's Society

Last year, about half of those under 30 who used SOS' E-mail Befriending service admitted to hurting themselves deliberately. The SOS received 6,000 e-mails last year, up from 5,000 in 2012.

Ms Petrine Lim, the principal social worker at Fei Yue Family Service Centre (Yew Tee), said that young people who self-harm are more willing to come forward to seek help, although her centre does not track the numbers.

"What's encouraging is that parents are more aware and are approaching the centre for help," she said. Her centre is currently handling about five self-harm cases.

Dr Ian Gordon Munt, consultant at the Institute of Mental Health's Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, also noted that the numbers of such cases may not be representative as the "majority of young people who cut (themselves) do it in secret and most of them do not present themselves".

"There are reports that those cutting deliberately are becoming younger, perhaps because of increasing pressures on younger children who are more aware of trends through social media," he said.

Ms Christine Wong, executive director of SOS, said many young people who injure themselves have difficulties in their relationships with families, friends or boyfriends and girlfriends.

Some also have feelings of depression and other mental health issues, she said, adding that self-mutilation is a "release from intense emotional pain". The behaviour typically arises during adolescence and in some cases can become a long-term habit.

Dr Carol Balhetchet, senior director for youth services at the Singapore Children's Society, said: "The generation today is under a lot more stress to achieve and do well - not just academically but in their social status, peer groups and family units.

"Boys are also subject to the emotional stress and they don't just channel their energy into physical behaviour like in the past."

She cited an example of a 12-year-old who cut himself because he did not fare as well as he had hoped for in his Primary School Leaving Examination last year.

Teens are also cutting themselves more often in places where the wounds would not be easily spotted, such as the thighs, inner arms and hips.

Experts said that not everyone who self-harms plans to commit suicide, but it is still dangerous and can lead to accidental death.

Ms Wong said parents and teachers need to pay attention to young people who show signs of changes in their behaviour, such as rage or hopelessness.

Ms Lim said that besides counselling teenagers, she also meets their parents to explain how they can help their children cope.

"Sometimes the children may be fearful of parents and unwilling to approach them, but we try to help them reconcile," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2015, with the headline 'Rising trend of self-harm among the young'. Print Edition | Subscribe