A quarter of young men self-harm to cope with depression, says survey

UK poll of 16- to 24-year-olds reveals many over-exercise, punch walls, drink heavily and abuse drugs due to anxiety and stress

Man Leaning on a Fence
Experts say the figures could be even higher as many young men are unaware that they are self-harming. Photograph: zodebala/Getty Images

One in four young men are turning to self-harm as a result of depression, anxiety and stress, according to a YouGov poll.

Of the 500 men aged 16 to 24 surveyed, 24% said they had intentionally hurt themselves. The poll commissioned by three leading youth charities – the Mix, Self-Harm UK and Young Minds – also found a further 22% said they had considered self-harming.

Many said that when they felt under pressure they would turn to exercising excessively, controlled eating, pulling out their hair, punching walls and abusing drugs. When asked how they cope with stress, 21% admitted to drinking heavily, while 19% said they had punched walls and 16% admitted to controlled eating.

Experts say the figures are further evidence that self-harm is not confined to young women. They support NHS figures obtained by the Guardian last yearwhich showed a sharp rise in hospital admissions for self-harm over the past decade.

The charities said the figures may be even greater, as many young men were unaware some of their negative behaviour is self-harm.

Chris Martin, chief executive at The Mix, a charity for under-25s, said: “What’s shocking about these results is the percentage of young men who are self-harming. Lately, we’ve seen a rise in young men accessing our mental health content, services and self-help tools.”

Chris Curtis, the chief executive of Self-Harm UK, said the issue needed to be urgently addressed “to help teenage boys deal constructively with the pressures they face”.

Dr Marc Bush, senior policy adviser at Young Minds, said: “Young men can find it hard to express their emotions because they need to be with the lads and have a sense of belonging. But they can have lots of issues with self-esteem and then have difficulty processing their emotions.”

Bush noted that many young men struggle with self-esteem issues due to the pressure to have a certain type of body. “Ten years ago we were worried about starvation, over-exercise and yo-yo dieting among women, but now we are seeing this in men. Young men think that these bodies are achievable and are doing anything to get them.”

Bush said some men became obsessed about exercise to cope with anxiety, working out to the point of doing physical damage. “There are cases of men over-exercising and acquiring an injury and then carrying on despite their body saying ‘you’re hurting me’. Lots of young men in their 30s and 40s have done damage that way so they cannot do sports that they used to. Over-exercise can be a injurious activity.”

He added that more needed to be done to raise awareness about men’s mental health concerns, so young people can talk about their experiences and learn ways to cope.

James Downs, 27, from Cardiff, turned to controlled eating and over-exercising to deal with difficult emotions as a teenager.

He said: “I started to retreat more and more into my eating problems and self-harming behaviours as a way of avoiding having to cope with my feelings. It was to numb the emotional pain I felt with physical pain. Things got so bad that I lost my friends, had to leave school and gave up my university place. I felt like I was a failure and this only made my damaging behaviour worse.

“Instead of blaming myself and isolating myself with my feelings I wish that I had been able to open up to others without feeling ashamed. Mental health and self-harm weren’t topics that were ever mentioned in school or at home. They weren’t on the radar and there needs to be much greater awareness and openness of these issues so that people don’t have to cope alone.”

The survey findings come after a dramatic rise in the number of children and young people self-harming in the past 10 years. There have been major rises among boys and girls.

An NSPCC spokesperson said: “A frightening number of children and young people are being driven to self-harm as a way of dealing with unresolved feelings, tensions and distress in their lives. Last year 18,778 children and young people in England and Wales were admitted to hospital for treatment for self inflicted injuries – a 14% increase over the last three years.

Sir Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said it was worrying that reliable data also showed rates of self-harm among young men steadily increasing since 2000.

Downs said: “Life for a young person today is full of challenges that our parents didn’t have to experience. It’s fast paced, competitive and puts immense demands on our ability to remain resilient and cope in positive ways.”

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