Long-term rise in self-harm in young women is about more than social media, charities warn

Charities warn of the risk the impacts of the pandemic pose to young women’s mental health as new research lays bare the connection between poverty and self-harm in young women

  • Young women (16 – 34) living in the most deprived households are five times more likely to self-harm, compared with those in the least. 
  • One in five women with severe money problems has self-harmed in past year. 
  • Those seriously behind on payments or who have had utilities disconnected three times more likely to have self-harmed, than those who haven’t. 
  • The charity is warning that the socio-economic impact of the Covid-19 health emergency could see an increase in levels of self-harm and poor mental health among young women unless economic inequalities are addressed. This increase isn’t inevitable. The charity is calling for action to support young women’s emotional wellbeing during the response. 

Young women who face poverty and disadvantage are more likely to self-harm than young women in affluent households, new evidence published today by Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk and the National Centre of Social Research (NatCen), reveals 

The findings come at a time when the coronavirus outbreak is likely to cause more economic hardship and push people further into poverty, with women hit the hardest. 

The charity is calling for an understanding of the impact poverty and disadvantage has on young women’s emotional wellbeing and mental health and for that consideration to be a core part of the response to the coronavirus outbreak   

This research, undertaken by analysts at NatCen, is one of the first to focus on connections between poverty and non-suicidal self-harm in young women across England. Based on new analysis of data from more than 20,000 people it shows that young women (aged 16 to 34) living in the most deprived households are five times more likely to self-harm, compared with those in the least.

Young women struggling with money problems and debt are at particular risk. One in five young women with ‘severe’ money problems has self-harmed in the past year, and those seriously behind with payments or who have had utilities disconnected were three times more likely to have self-harmed in the past year than other women. 

Where young women live may also play a role. Self-harm was four times more common among those who said they did not feel safe in their neighbourhood in the day.

Kate*, 29, experiences anxiety, depression and complex PTSD, she says: “I started self-harming when I was about 12. When I was in my teen years, being permanently skint, not having my rent together, led to chronic insecurity and fear. I let people I shouldn’t have into my home if they could chip into the rent. This always ended badly and put me in physical danger which only compounded my sense of worthlessness and being a complete failure, not able to pull myself together and function properly, which I’d take out on myself through self-harm. I often didn’t have money to travel and was ashamed of my situation which isolated me from people that could have offered support.”

While most people who self-harm will not attempt suicide, those who die by suicide are more likely to have previously self-harmed. And although young men remain more likely to take their own lives than young women, suicide rates for girls and young women (aged 10 to 24) have increased and in 2018 were the highest on record.

Agenda is calling on all mental health strategies and policies to consider the impact of poverty and inequality on girls and young women’s mental health, especially at a time when the coronavirus outbreak is likely to make those inequalities worse.  

Jemima Olchawski, Chief Executive of Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk, said: “The increase in self-harm among young women is deeply worrying. Yet the discussion around this issue and women and girls’ mental health is often very narrow, focussing on issues like social media rather than reflecting on wider causes. This research highlights the important relationship between self-harm and poverty – that’s especially concerning as we move into an economic downturn as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. 

“This evidence should encourage policy makers to take a more holistic approach to tackling self-harm. We know that poverty, discrimination and abuse are prevalent and have a serious impact on mental health and emotional wellbeing. Yet these issues are often ignored in favour of simplistic solutions.”

Sally McManus, Researcher from the National Centre for Social Research, said: People have become increasingly likely to report using non-suicidal self-harm as a way of coping and this increase is particularly apparent in young women. This report indicates that self-harm often occurs in the context of poverty and debt, especially for young women.  

“With the economic impact of the Covid-19 outbreak so evident, we must consider these findings when thinking about how the crisis might affect young women. Plans to support their mental health should address the impact that financial insecurity and deprivation can have on young women’s mental health.” 

Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson, Director of the Women’s Budget Group said today: This powerful report shows the strong links between poverty, mental health and self-harming for younger women. We know that young women are particularly likely to have been hit badly by the economic impact of Covid-19, since they are more likely to work in sectors like hospitality and retail that have been closed down. The Government must ensure that as they plan for the recovery they include specific strategies to address poverty and mental health problems among young women.” 

The findings come the year the Marmot report Health Equity in England Ten Years On revealed that women living in the poorest areas are facing the greatest health inequalities and their life expectancy has declined by ten per cent in the last decade. Furthermore, recent research warns that existing inequalities mean that women are set to be disproportionately impacted by the economic and health impacts of Covid-19.