Young women’s mental health hit hard by poverty ‘more than social media’

Experts say deprivation is not taken enough into account by policymakers dealing with young women's mental health after 20,000 face-to-face interviews revealed the role poverty plays in self-harm

Young women living in poverty are five times more likely to self-harm than their better off peers, according to new research, at a time when the Covid-19 crisis is pushing more families into financial hardship.

A study by the National Centre of Social Research (NatCen) and published by charity Agenda showed that one in five women between 16 and 34 with severe money problems has self-harmed in the past year. Those who had utilities disconnected as a result of an inability to pay were three times more likely to have self-harmed than those who hadn’t.

Experts at the women and girls’ charity are warning that the socio-economic effects of the pandemic will drive a deterioration in the mental health of young women unless the government acts on the concerning figures and addresses the inequalities they already face.

They say an understanding of how the public health emergency impacts young women must form a core part of the country’s response to the outbreak, and that the conversation around women’s mental health must extent beyond social media and body image.

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

Prior to the study there was already growing evidence of a rise in self-harm overall, with the rate of people between 16-74 reporting self-harm tripling between 2000 and 2014. The biggest jump was seen in 16-24-year-old women (5.8 per cent to 17.7 per cent).

The NatCen research surveyed more than 20,000 people in England, also suggesting where young women live has an impact on their mental wellbeing – with self-harm proving four times as common among those who didn’t feel safe in their neighbourhood.

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, focusing 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.”

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Agenda is calling for policy change to protect women – who are “more likely to be living in poverty, struggling with debts and working insecure jobs” – through the crisis and beyond, including scrapping the five-week wait for the first Universal Credit payment, increasing sick pay and carers’ allowance plus protecting insecure and low-paid work from job losses and redundancies.

Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson, director of the Women’s Budget Group said today: “This powerful report shows the strong links between poverty, mental health and self-harming for younger women. We know that young women are particularly likely to have been hit badly by the economic impact of Covid-19, since they are more likely to work in sectors like hospitality and retail that have been closed down. The Government must ensure that as they plan for the recovery they include specific strategies to address poverty and mental health problems among young women.”

A government spokesperson said: “We are absolutely committed to supporting everyone’s mental wellbeing, especially during this unprecedented period. Vulnerable young women can continue to access mental health services, including virtually, and we have released new tailored guidance to help people deal with this outbreak through practical tips and advice.”

People can call Samaritans for free any time on 116 123, email jo@samaritans.org, or visit www.samaritans.org to find details of their nearest branch.