Nearly 19,000 children were admitted to hospital after self-harming last year in England and Wales – a rise of 14% over the past three years, according to the children’s charity NSPCC.
It said the NHS figures should be a “real wake-up call” to all those who cared about young people’s wellbeing.
Self-harming is one of the most common reasons for children to contact the charity’s Childline service.
About 50 children a day were given counselling on the issue, it said.
Teenagers aged 13 to 17 are most likely to end up in hospital as a result of acts of self harm, which include cutting their bodies, overdosing on pills or burning themselves.
‘Distracted from turmoil’
Sophie Allen, who is now 32 and works for Harmless, a self-harming charity in the East Midlands, started self-harming at about the age of 11 or 12.
She said she “stumbled” across self-harm after accidentally hurting herself at a time when she was feeling particularly low after a lot of transitions and change in her life, and being bullied.
“I just felt so distracted from the inner turmoil because I was so focused on the physical injury, that when I felt low again I remembered what distracted me before,” she told BBC Radio 5 Live.
“It was just a way to share the distress that I was feeling without being able to find the words to say that I was struggling.”
She described the feeling at the time as a “massive release – people cannot understand that the process is like a weight being lifted”.
“However, that’s very, very short-lived… a few hours later the shame sets in, the guilt sets in.”
Ms Allen said she was finally treated when she attempted suicide at 15 and ended up in hospital, where she was referred for counselling.
The figures, which were collected from all but six NHS Trusts in England and health boards in Wales, reveal that 18,788 under-18s were admitted to hospital or treated at accident and emergency units for self-harm in 2015-16.
This compares with 16,416 admissions for self-harm in 2013-14.
Official figures from NHS Digital show admissions for self-harm have been increasing for five years in a row.
Experts say better recording of data by hospitals may be reflected in the rise.
Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, said the numbers were “frightening”.
“Knowing hospital beds are full of young people crying out for help should be a real wake-up call to all those that care for the wellbeing of the younger generation,” he said.
“It is vital we confront the fact that an increasing number are struggling to deal with the pressures and demands of modern-day life, to such an extent they are inflicting terrible damage upon themselves.”
He said every child and teenager should receive the advice and support they needed – and they could get that by contacting Childline.
Last year, the confidential children’s helpline dealt with more than 18,000 calls about self-harm.
Dame Esther Rantzen, president of Childline, said: “Self-harming is at epidemic level among young people.”
She said young people often felt ashamed and scared to ask for help from those closest to them, and it was not until they had seriously harmed themselves that they were rushed to hospital.
How to help a child who is self-harming?
- Listen, understand and show empathy
- Talk it over and try to work how what is making them self-harm
- Build up their confidence and show they can trust you
- Help them find new ways to cope
Children and young people can contact Childline for free, confidential support and advice, 24 hours a day on 0800 1111 or on their website.
Dr Max Davie, from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said schools should be offering more support.
“One way of providing this early intervention is for all schools to deliver comprehensive Personal Social Health Economic (PSHE) education,” he said.
This would teach children “about emotional wellbeing and addressing challenging mental health issues such as eating disorders, self-harm and suicide – in addition to other important topics like positive relationships, sex education and the dangers of drugs and alcohol abuse.”
Schools are not currently obliged to offer PSHE.