Psychological distress in women aged 16-24 is at an all-time high, with record numbers admitting to harming themselves to relieve their distress, according to an alarming study.
Experts say young women are now a “high-risk group” and point to links between mental illness and violence or sexual abuse, and possible pressures from the rise of social media.
The Adult Psychiatric Morbidity survey of mental health and wellbeing, carried out every seven years across England, reveals soaring rates of mental illness among young women, who are suffering from a range of common mental health problems, including depression and anxiety.
Worryingly, in this age group, reports of self-harm in women had trebled to almost 20% between 2000 and 2016. Often, they were suffering from anxiety or depression. Yet only around a third of this age group received treatment, compared with more than half of over-50s who self-harmed.
Elsewhere, the study found 13% of young women had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – three times the rate recorded when the government-funded study was last conducted. Experts believe violence and abuse, including rape, was part of the explanation for the sharp rise in PTSD, but they also said a new screening tool may be detecting more cases.
The gender gap in mental illness has become most pronounced in young people. These results were staggering, but similar figures have appeared elsewhere. The figures on self-harm are particularly worrying. The risk is that without alternative, positive coping strategies, illnesses will become long-term and entrenched.
Exposure to violence and abuse is the biggest predictor of mental illness. However, there is evidence that poverty is also a factor and there are possible links to social media, with the “selfie generation” feeling under pressure over their body image.
There are currently only four models of treatment: therapy; medication; behaviour modification or psycho-education (where people were given information on how to manage their own condition). However, interventions needed to be more targeted to the needs of an individual. At the same time, there needs to be a model that could improve resilience, involving the wider community. Many schools recognised that distressed pupils needed professional help and pilot projects involving schools and mental health providers were supporting youngsters in a variety of ways.
This is not just about putting more professionals on the ground, but also increasing the emphasis on things to help, such as mindfulness. We also need to look at ways to tackle inequalities, as mental health difficulties are associated with inequalities and deprivation.
Young women who self-harm can wait a long time for treatment. By immersing themselves in a positive image, they can feel some enjoyment. This can be enough to lift their mood and eas the problem. But we all have to work at it and help our peers.