(Ireland) Psychotherapist raises concern about 'children as young as four self-harming'

June 24, 2018, Independent: 'Children as young as four are self-harming - we can't turn a blind eye to mental health' WHEN I first read about children as young as four presenting with mental health difficulties, such as self-harming behaviour and anxiety, I sighed heavily. Have we really come to this? I wondered. Four year olds self-harming? Is this yet another moral panic designed, for the most part, to buy our attention or is the world gone to hell entirely? This DCU study surveyed more than 1,000 principals and the findings report that significant numbers of primary-school children are experiencing emotional difficulties such as anxiety and depression. Many people, of course, will dismiss this as do-gooders taking children’s little problems too seriously…. According to the report, the teachers aren’t equipped to adequately respond to students in distress. Dr Rosaleen McElvaney, who compiled the report, pointed to studies in the UK that suggest society would benefit if troubled children could avail of counselling…. People who have never engaged in self-harm find it inexplicable, however even animals turn to self-harming behaviour when they’re distressed. Knives and razors are what come to mind and yet there are many different ways to self-harm – for example, scratching, biting and slapping – but until relatively recently, it was only the more extreme version of self-harm that was recognised. Ten years ago, if I had seen a baby in a fury, banging his head on the floor, I would have thought, ‘oh this poor baby has fallen into a bad habit of hurting themselves when they’re frustrated’. Today I would think, ‘this baby is using self-harm as a coping mechanism’. The same behaviour for the same reason; just a different set of words to describe the action. These more clinical evaluations of children’s behaviour might bring about better resolutions, but they can also lead to scary findings such as those found in this DCU report. If self-harm has always existed, but hasn’t really been acknowledged until recently, then the good news is that we are finally beginning to address the dysfunctional coping mechanisms that children use. If, on the other hand, it is a case that the numbers of children reporting anxiety, depression and self-harming behaviour are rising, then we need to take some time to consider what it is about our environment that is causing such distress to children? According to the DCU report, family issues and relationship breakdowns are the most common causes of mental health difficulties among children and so we really should address these issues with more consideration. The middle ground tends to be the most accurate analysis of most aspects of life, so maybe it’s a bit of both – we have become more adept at recognising children’s distress and maybe, also, the numbers of children in emotional distress are increasing wildly because of common problems in society…. Stella O’Malley is a psychotherapist