Rise in pupils self-harming since Covid

Posted: 22nd March 2024

A secondary school says asking children if they are self-harming has become “common” since the Covid pandemic.

School leaders and mental health workers say they have seen increases in anxiety, self-harm and eating disorders among children.

The number of pupils now marked as persistently absent from class has also doubled in Welsh secondary schools.

The Welsh government said school attendance was a “national priority”.

“I don’t know if it comes from a desire for them to hurt themselves, or a cry for help,” said Millie Jones, who runs the inclusion zone at Ysgol John Bright in Llandudno, Conwy county.

Ms Jones’ inclusion zone is two classrooms set aside to help learners currently unable to cope in normal classes.

She said self-harm had crept up alongside anxiety and more extreme reactions to daily life.

“What we probably see the most of is this increase in social anxiety,” said Ms Jones.

“Things that are really common for adults or even confident mainstream learners, like walking down a corridor or walking into a classroom late – those are things that would really cripple some of our high anxiety learners.”

Ms Jones said it was impossible to tell what was behind the rise in behavioural issues, but on some occasions children had missed “the fundamental building blocks” to join in with certain classes.

“Imagine not being able to meet expectations on a daily basis. It’s exhausting for them,” she said.

John Bright caters for more than a thousand pupils, but staff say the number of children flagged as potentially self-harming has “quadrupled” since before Covid.

“I think education was always going to face a changing landscape with the first generations who’ve always lived in a household where there are smartphones,” said Hywel Parry, the school’s headteacher.

“I think what’s marked is the acceleration in the issues that is happening post pandemic.

“It’s as if those circumstances and difficulties have become embedded in society now and are continuing to grow at a more at an accelerated rate than we saw pre-pandemic.”

Mr Parry said he hoped schools could rebuild relationships with parents and pupils as society moved on from Covid, but feared funding cuts could ultimately see more children permanently excluded as mental health issues “snowball” without additional support.

“The increase – the doubling, tripling in numbers – that we see here of students reporting as feeling anxious, struggling with what used to be normality in school life like preparing for tests or preparing for exams continues to be a challenge at a time when resources and finances for schools are diminishing,” he said.

Mr Parry said his school had seen funding cuts of 10% in the past two years, despite the spike in issues they were seeing.

He admitted he had needed to make redundancies as a result, while also swelling class sizes to the maximum physically allowed within his relatively modern school building.

Mental health workers said it was often school teachers who may be the first to notice serious problems.

“Those experiences from lockdown are still affecting our young people that are seeing referred in,” said Sarah Langford, strategic lead for children and young people at mental health charity Adferiad.

“We’re having more referrals and they are much more complex referrals.

“Many want to do well in their GCSEs and their A-levels, like they’ve not missed large proportions of their schooling.”

However, Ms Langford said they saw many children struggling to engage with school “or even sit still” and the “drive to achieve like nothing has happened” was putting many under increased strain.

“We are seeing a lot more young people talking to us about self-harm and what they are doing,” she said.

“We’re seeing much more cutting, burning, hairpulling. We’ve had a number of young people who are pulling their own hair.”

What was lockdown like for young people?’

“The behaviour of pupils did change quite a bit,” said 16-year-old Daynton, who attends a different school.

“There were people messing around a lot more. They couldn’t concentrate properly because they were used to being at home.

“I did also go down that route a little bit where I couldn’t concentrate as much and because in certain subjects I was no longer as good as I was, I misbehaved because I didn’t want to tell people I was bad, so I made excuses for it.'”

Tyrun, also 16, said: “Many kids in school after lockdown were a lot more disruptive than they were before, me especially.

“Year 8 was that time in high school when I was acting like one of those kids you would not like. I felt a lot more isolated than I did before, it sort of made me a bit miserable.”

Wales’ children’s commissioner, Rocio Cifuentes, agreed the pandemic was still having a “significant negative impact” on children.

“This impact didn’t end when restrictions were lifted, and there was no national ‘back to normal’ – we’re still seeing the effects of those two years, perhaps most notably on children’s mental health and their education,” she said.

“When it comes to recovery, we really can’t afford to take our eye off the ball. The harm caused by the pandemic shows no sign of disappearing, and a big recovery needs big investment for years to come.”

A spokesperson for the Welsh government said £13.6m was being provided to support schools with wellbeing initiatives.

“This funding will be used to expand and improve school counselling, deliver universal and targeted wellbeing interventions and train school staff on wellbeing,” they added.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this story you can visit BBC Action Line

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