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Young women, poverty and non-suicidal self-harm


Agenda, NatCen, report, young women, poverty, non-suicidal self-harm, debt, coronavirus epidemic, the Marnot review government policies, Young women struggling with money problems and debt are at particular risk.

The long-term rise in self-harm in young women is about more than social media.

Young women in England who face poverty and disadvantage are more likely to self-harm than young women in affluent households, new evidence published by Agenda and the National Centre of Social Research has revealed.

This research, undertaken by analysts at the National Centre of Social Research (NatCen), is one of the first to focus on connections between poverty and non-suicidal self-harm in young women across England.

Based on new analysis of data from more than 20,000 people, it shows that young women – aged 16 to 34 – living in the most deprived households are five times more likely to self-harm, compared with those in the least deprived households.

Young women struggling with money problems and debt are at particular risk.

One in five young women with ‘severe’ money problems has self-harmed in the past year, and those seriously behind with payments or who have had utilities disconnected were three times more likely to have self-harmed in the past year than other women.

Where young women live may also play a role.

Self-harm was four times more common among those who said they did not feel safe in their neighbourhood in the day.

While most people who self-harm will not attempt suicide, those who die by suicide are more likely to have previously self-harmed.

And although young men remain more likely to take their own lives than young women, suicide rates for girls and young women aged 10 to 24 have increased and in 2018 were the highest on record.

Other key points from the briefing include:

Young women seriously behind with payments or who have had utilities disconnected were three times more likely to have self-harmed in the past year than other women (13 per cent compared to 4 per cent).

The findings come at a time when other evidence points to a deterioration in mental health among young women and girls. The proportion of people aged 16-74 saying that they self-harmed tripled between 2000 and 2014 – with the greatest percentage point increase being for 16 to 24 year-old women (5.8 per cent to 17.7 per cent)

One in seven have signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The findings come at a time when the coronavirus outbreak is likely to cause more economic hardship and push people further into poverty, with women hit the hardest.

Agenda is calling for an understanding of the impact poverty and disadvantage has on young women’s emotional wellbeing and mental health and for that consideration to be a core part of the response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The findings come the year the Marmot report ‘Health Equity in England Ten Years On‘ revealed that women living in the poorest areas are facing the greatest health inequalities, and their life expectancy has declined by ten per cent in the last decade.

And recent research warns that existing inequalities mean that women are set to be disproportionately impacted by the economic and health impacts of Covid-19.

Agenda is calling for:

A cross-government strategy to improve the outcomes of women and girls facing poverty and disadvantage in order to tackle the major risk factors linked with self-harm.

This should come with a central government funding pot to support relevant and joined-up responses to tackling these disadvantage, and support the provision of gender and trauma-informed services that respond to the wide range of challenges women and girls may face.

This is especially important when considering the economic and health response to COVID-19;

National and local suicide prevention strategies and action plans to acknowledge and respond to self-harm among young women and girls, with poverty and considered as a central factor;

Policy initiatives to tackle women and girls’ risk of poverty and disadvantage must be developed and delivered.

This is especially true in light of the coronavirus outbreak.

Research shows that women are more likely to be living in poverty, struggling with debts and bills and working insecure jobs. This should include removing the 5-week wait and covering the cost of average rents under Universal Credit, increasing sick pay and carer’s allowance, tacking action to address the gender pay gap, and ensuring job losses and redundancies do not hit young women and women in insecure low-paid work hardest;

Professionals working with those living in poverty to be aware of the increased rate of self-harm among girls and young women on low incomes;

Population-wide survey data collected in both England and Wales to understand the factors that drive inequalities in health, including in gender, age and ethnicity; and

Policy makers must be aware of the wider impact and harms caused by the social and economic impacts of the coronavirus outbreak. We need to plan for increased need among young women and girls.

Kate, 29, who experiences anxiety, depression and complex PTSD, said: “I started self-harming when I was about 12.

“I was in my teen years, being permanently skint, not having my rent together, led to chronic insecurity and fear. I let people I shouldn’t have into my home if they could chip into the rent. This always ended badly and put me in physical danger which only compounded my sense of worthlessness and being a complete failure, not able to pull myself together and function properly, which I’d take out on myself through self-harm.

“I often didn’t have money to travel and was ashamed of my situation which isolated me from people that could have offered support.”

Jemima Olchawski, Chief Executive of Agenda, said: “The increase in self-harm among young women is deeply worrying. Yet the discussion around this issue and women and girls’ mental health is often very narrow, focussing on issues like social media rather than reflecting on wider causes.

“This research highlights the important relationship between self-harm and poverty – that’s especially concerning as we move into an economic downturn as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

“This evidence should encourage policy makers to take a more holistic approach to tackling self-harm.

“We know that poverty, discrimination and abuse are prevalent and have a serious impact on mental health and emotional wellbeing. Yet these issues are often ignored in favour of simplistic solutions.”

To read the full report, Often Overlooked: Young women, poverty and self-harm, click here.

If you or someone you know wants help or someone to talk to, call the Samaritans – free on any phone, anytime, on 116 123, or email:  or visit

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