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Self-harming figures reveal the brutal reality of WA teens in harm’s way

The number of children aged under 13 treated at WA hospital emergency departments for self-harm has doubled in the past five years.

WA Health Department figures show that last year 119 children aged nine to 12 attended hospital because of self-harm such as cutting, compared with 63 in 2013.

Overall more than 1500 children and teens aged nine to 17 were treated in 2018, a number that has been rising steadily for the past five years.

Three times as many girls self-harmed compared with boys.

Some health experts are worried that they are seeing younger children, rather than teenagers, resorting to hurting themselves.

Giulia Pace, who heads Touchstone — a day program for young people with complex mental health issues including self-harming — said demand for treatment services appeared to be increasing.

Bullying, particularly cyber-bullying, was contributing but there was often underlying factors.

“It can be quite complex, and while things can trigger self-harming behaviour, it is often a combination of factors, and usually the young person might be in some way predisposed to have difficulties with their emotions,” she said. “It might be part of their temperament, or perhaps they are anxious or impulsive, and when that’s mixed with an environment such as where the parents are under stress or they have their own difficulties with mental health, the child doesn’t develop the skills to cope with big emotions.

“So when something happens in adolescence, which is a challenging time for all young people, then in someone who is already vulnerable it can be a catalyst for them really struggling,” Dr Pace said.

She said girls were more likely to self-harm because they tended to internalise their emotions whereas boys struggling with mental health issues tended to act out or show outward aggression. Sometimes self-harming was protective for acutely unwell teenagers contemplating suicide because it stopped them going that extra step.

Dr Pace often reassured parents worried about self-harming behaviour that in the vast majority of cases it was short term.

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