Perth doctors have warned of an epidemic of troubled teenagers whose self-harming behaviour is fuelled by their use of Facebook and other social media.
It comes as new figures show a growing number of children needing emergency hospital treatment because they have harmed themselves, including more than one in 50 of all injury presentations at Princess Margaret Hospital.
So far this year, 418 children have been treated at PMH’s emergency department for self-harm, or 2.3 per cent of all injuries seen. This compares with 365 cases for the whole of last year and 276 for 2010.
WA Health Department data also shows a steady rise in under-18s seeking treatment for intentional self-harm across all metropolitan public hospitals in the past five years, peaking at 549 in 2011-12.
More than two-thirds of those treated last year were girls.
Australian Medical Association WA psychiatry spokesman Paul Skerritt said teenagers from all walks of life seemed to be struggling with increasingly complex pressures which included family tensions.
There seemed to be a particular problem in the northern suburbs, with young people increasingly resorting to harming themselves, ranging from minor injuries to suicidal behaviour.
“Sadly some are fatal, while others come close to it, and with non-fatal self-harm females tend to outnumber boys about 10 to one,” Professor Skerritt said.
“We know something like depression is very different in a young person compared to the condition in a 45-year-old, and what seems to be adding an extra element is young people’s wide use of social media.
“They share their feelings on Facebook in ways that are quite alarming and not very helpful for others and this is contributing to the levels of self-harm we are seeing.”
Professor Skerritt said the problems were further compounded by a lack of psychiatrists, particularly child psychiatrists.
Dr Rosanna Capolingua, who chairs the governing council of WA’s Child and Adolescent Health Service, said the figures from PMH were the tip of the iceberg.
“There are many cases that never find their way to hospital or GPs and sometimes even parents don’t know their kids are harming themselves,” she said.
“Girls are cutting themselves but hiding it under their clothes and they talk about it on social media as a way of ‘sharing the pain’ and belonging.
“We can’t pretend this isn’t happening and as a community we have to talk about it.”
A Health Department spokeswoman said there was range of services for young people who self-harmed and were referred by hospital emergency departments, acute response teams, clinics or GPs.
Up to the age of 16, those needing acute intervention could be admitted to a voluntary inpatient unit at PMH, and up to the age of 18 they could be voluntarily or involuntarily admitted to the Bentley Adolescent Unit.
Acute outpatient services for young people with severe and persistent mental disorders were offered at 10 Community Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service sites in Perth.
Private psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, non-government organisations such as Youth Focus and Headspace, school psychologists and other support staff were also available.