Young people have been hugely affected by the restrictions resulting from the pandemic, both socially and economically.
Self-harm is a sign of serious emotional distress, and while most people who self-harm will not go on take their own life, studies have found it is a strong risk factor for suicide.
We also know self-harm is more common among young people. Research suggests that 1 in 4 young women and 1 in 10 young men have self-harmed at some point in their life. Self-harm rates have also risen fastest among young people since 2000.
Even before the pandemic, people who self-harmed could struggle to access support – with only 38% of people who self-harmed receiving medical and/or psychological support.
Early research suggests that young people, particularly young women, have experienced much greater declines in their mental health during the pandemic, compared to others. Our research adds further evidence that more young people may be struggling as a result of the pandemic.
In our conversations with young people, there were four key themes: access to mental health and self-harm support, family tensions, lack of peer contact and negativity about the future.
Access to mental health and self-harm support
Volunteers told us that access to mental health support was the most common concern among young people and the majority of volunteers regularly spoke to young people about this. Similarly, young people’s reduced access to community support services or networks, such as support provided in schools, social activities, or physical activity groups, was a common cause of distress. Our volunteers suggested that young people saw the loss of these support structures or coping mechanisms as a key driver for the decline in their mental health.
[Callers] recognising the positivity they got from peer activities and the knowledge that a health professional was no longer there for them.
Samaritans listening volunteer
Our volunteers reported that, as the restrictions tightened into the winter, they were hearing from more young adults with worries relating to managing or resisting self-harm. Samaritans volunteers suggested there had been an increase in contacts with young people about using self-harm as a coping mechanism. Volunteers also spoke of a rise in callers who had returned to self-harm as a way of trying to cope, or who were struggling to resist self-harm in the absence of other support. During the past year, in 22% of contacts where self-harm was discussed, the caller was resisting self-harm.
Callers who were concerned about Covid were more likely to be resisting self-harm than callers who weren’t (25% vs 21%). As our service data doesn’t capture specific ages, we cannot track how this has changed over time. However, we do know that discussion of self-harm was much higher among under 18s. In the past year, a third (35%) of callers aged under 18 discussed self-harm compared to 7% of adults.
A study of patients who presented in hospital with self-harm during the first lockdown also suggests that coronavirus-related factors such as loneliness or a reduction in support services were linked to the self-harm in nearly half (46%) of cases.
Social distancing restrictions led to many students and young adults returning to their family home, for example due to universities closing. Volunteers told us that family tensions were a concern for many younger callers, who frequently spoke about this as exacerbating their mental health problems. Feelings of lost freedom and of being trapped or isolated were common.
In addition, some younger callers talked about not wanting to share details about their mental health struggles with their parents. For example, volunteers told us that some younger callers felt increased anxiety about hiding evidence of their self-harm from family members. Some felt their family members did not understand their mental health needs, while others did not want to ‘burden’ their parents who might be experiencing their own stresses relating to the pandemic.
There is often a reluctance to confide in parents regarding how bad they feel because parents are already stressed due to the effects of coronavirus restrictions.
Samaritans listening volunteer
Lack of peer contact
Before the pandemic, research found that young people feel lonely more often than older age groups. This appears to have worsened during the pandemic — one study found that almost half of young people reported feeling lonely as a result of the pandemic after nearly a year of restrictions, compared to a third at the beginning of the first lockdown. Evidence in Scotland also shows that loneliness during the pandemic was most common among young people and became decreasingly common among older age groups.
Our volunteers noted that a lack of peer contact or loneliness were common concerns from young callers, and that coronavirus restrictions have exacerbated this. Volunteers also told us that young people expressed concerns that they were losing contact with friends due to the coronavirus restrictions. As friendships tailed off during the lockdowns, young callers expressed anxiety about returning to schools and not having a place in their usual social groups or circles. For those attending university, students discussed concerns about not meeting peers on their courses or making friends, with high levels of loneliness and isolation a common thread among contacts from undergraduates.
Our previous research also found an association between loneliness and self-harm — in that people who had self-harmed in the past year were 10 times more likely to report feeling very lonely and isolated (31% vs 2.4%).
Negativity and concern about the future
People aged 16-24 have experienced the biggest drop in employment compared to other age groups due to higher numbers working in hospitality and retail. The increase in unemployment is concerning as there is a significantly higher rate of suicide among unemployed, compared to employed people. Financial concerns, such as problem debt, are also associated with increased suicide risk.
Volunteers told us that uncertainty and negativity about the future, relating to economic factors, were key themes in contacts from young people. For younger callers who were just starting out in work, volunteers described concerns from callers about whether they would keep their job. Among those seeking employment, concerns centred on whether they would find a new role in a very competitive job market. Volunteers reported that these concerns extended to those still in education, either school or university. For these callers, looking ahead brought uncertainty both about whether their qualifications would be affected by their reduced time in school, and how they would fare when they did enter the job market.
Beyond employment, some callers discussed concerns that they would not achieve the appropriate qualifications, which would then impact their future career choices or employment prospects. Volunteers noted that a few young callers expressed “fear of being a lost generation” and concerns about the impact on their futures.
Several were students who literally felt they could die in their rooms and no-one would know for days.
The younger people I have spoken to… don't want to be tagged as 'the covid generation' as they see this will impact their ability to get a job. Some have said they don't feel they will get the results they expected prior to covid, and now feel like they will miss out on so much in the future.
To find out more about how young people who self-harm have been affected by the Coronavirus pandemic, and what we think should be done to support them, follow the link below to read our policy brief. If you are reporting on this issue, please refer to our media guidelines.