One in 10 children in Britain have started self-harming – with many also having suicidal thoughts – as a consequence of the cost of living crisis, a new report has revealed.
The impact of money worries for British families has caused 47% of children to feel stressed, while 21% of parents said their children smile less because of the financial squeeze.
But, most concerning, 9% of children were found to be self-harming as a direct result of the cost of living crisis. Meanwhile, 8% had shown signs of suicidal ideas, amounting to more than two children in every school class of 30.
The “appalling” findings have been revealed in the new Hungry, Anxious and Scared report from The Childhood Trust, seen exclusively by the Observer.
The cost of living crisis risks plunging many previously financially stable families into poverty for the first time and the outcomes could be “disastrous”, according to the charity’s chief executive, Laurence Guinness.
“A lot of kids are finding themselves in this appalling situation for the first time,” he said. “They are deeply, deeply ashamed and embarrassed and worried about their predicament.
“Two or three kids in a class of 30 are self-harming because they are so anxious about their living situation, about whether their parents can pay the bills or whether they are going to be able to have a shower that night.
“One little boy told me he can only shower once a week now and his mum stands by the side of the shower to make sure it isn’t a long one either.”
The cost of living crisis is compounding a mental health crisis among children in Britain brought on by the Covid pandemic, Guinness said.
The relentless concern from parents about being able to heat their homes or put food on the table is having a profound negative impact on children, the report said.
“When I feel hungry, I ask my mother if we have any food and then she’ll tell me if there’s enough money or not,” said seven-year-old Esham. “If there isn’t then I just go in the cupboards and see if there’s something and if there’s a snack, then I’ll just eat it and try to go to bed.”
For the trust, there is little doubt about the underlying cause of the mental health crisis among children. McGuinness said: “After a decade of cuts and shrinking welfare support, the government’s response to the cost of living crisis amounts to a sticking plaster on the gaping wound of growing inequality.”
He referred to the Conservative government’s decision not to increase child benefit as a “major failing” that has led to more children dealing with clinical depression.
Susan Rudnik, a director and lead arts psychotherapist at Latimer Community Arts Therapy in west London, believes a lack of early intervention resources has caused the biggest children’s mental health crisis she has seen.
“Self-harming is very complex but very often young people feel it is a way of coping when there is nothing else that is going to help them,” she said. “It is quite a worry when they are relying on unhealthy mechanisms of coping because there is nothing or no one else available to help, whether that’s a professional, or a parent, friend or teacher.”
“But teachers are overstretched, mental health professionals are overstretched, therapists are overstretched, the third sector is being cut. We are heading into a disaster.”
She added that girls are most likely to be referred for self-harming and that, although it is predominantly primary schoolchildren likely to be affected, charities are working with secondary schoolchildren “more and more”.
With more than one in five (22%) children also appearing angrier than before, according to their parents, food poverty was highlighted as one of the biggest issues facing poor families in Britain at the moment.
One single mother-of-three said: “At the moment, everything is really crazy. Everything is hard. When I used to go shopping for the week it was £30, maybe £35.
“Now if you go to pick up a few things that you need it’s £60 or £70. It’s a shock. We’re trying to reduce. There’s a charity behind where I live, so sometimes I go there to get food.”
The report’s findings were published as part of The Childhood Trust’s Champions for Children fundraising campaign, which aims to raise £3.5m by 28 June.