Our kids are harming themselves, and it’s terrifying.
A new study has shown that over the decade up to June 2012, more than 18,000 Australian children aged from six to 16 were admitted to hospital for self-harm.
The study’s lead author, Rebecca Mitchell, says those numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.
“Our research represents about 10 per cent of those who have attempted self-harm,” Associate Professor Mitchell, from the Australian Institute of Health Innovation at Macquarie University, explains. “We’ve just got the ones who are hospitalised.”
So how could a six-year-old even get the idea in their head to harm themselves?
“It’s possible that some of the younger kids don’t really think of it as something that could actually really harm them or potentially end their lives,” Associate Professor Mitchell says.
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The research shows that four times as many girls are hospitalised for self-harm as boys, but the number of boys being hospitalised is rising by 2.5 per cent every year.
One of the scariest findings for parents is that most kids aren’t seeking help for their problems before they harm themselves. Associate Professor Mitchell agrees that’s “frightening”.
“It’s particularly scary because their lives haven’t even begun yet,” she says. “It can get so much better.”
So what can we, as parents, do?
Associate Professor Mitchell says we should be on the lookout for any signs that things aren’t right in our children’s lives.
These can include mood swings, depression, weight loss or major weight gain, unwillingness to talk and secretive behaviour. On top of that, children are at greater risk of harming themselves if someone they know has done it recently. Parents should then start a conversation with their child.
“I guess you could start it around a story that’s appeared in the media, or if someone close to the child has attempted self-harm, start the conversation around those issues. If you do suspect your child is being bullied, you could bring up examples and then work through strategies with your child about what they could do in those sorts of situations and who they should talk to.”
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Parents can steer their children towards counsellors or other professionals, family members or trusted family friends, or anonymous services such as Lifeline and Beyond Blue. There’s also Kids Helpline and, for those aged 12 and over, Headspace.
Associate Professor Mitchell believes it’s important for all parents to be aware of what’s happening in their kids’ lives – both at school and online.
“Monitor where they’re going and who they’re going with. With younger kids, monitor what they’re watching on television or what they’re accessing on the internet, especially what’s happening on social media in terms of bullying.”
She says self-harm is something that parents can’t ignore.
“I think, definitely, every parent needs to be aware that this is an issue, and an increasing issue at the moment.”