Certainly, the internet is a factor in this epidemic - but I think it’s more complicated than that. Picture: AP

London - A terrifying epidemic is consuming young people. It’s not an infection, although it is infectious. Nor is it a disease, although it does require medical attention.

This new affliction striking down so many is self-harm.

Speak to staff members at any school or university and they will tell you that self-harming behaviours have become so commonplace that they are almost the norm.

One teacher told me how, on an almost daily basis, she has students who will routinely deliberately stab themselves with compasses or scratch their arms. There is no secrecy about it.

A mother related how her teenage daughter said "everyone" in her class had cut, burnt or inflicted some other injury on themselves. They wear their scars like badges of honour, she said.

These anecdotal observations are backed by figures published this week that show rates of self-harm in those aged 16-24 have trebled since 2000, with the biggest spike among girls and young women. Nearly one in five females in this age group now report self-harming.

That is a staggering number and poses a significant public health issue. It has prompted mental health charities to call for a crackdown on websites and social media posts that promote or "glamorise" the behaviour.

Certainly, the internet is a factor in this epidemic - but I think it’s more complicated than that.

From my experience, self-harming seems to be "catching". Once one person in a group of friends or in a class starts doing it, others often follow suit. This is known as contagion - the spreading of a harmful idea or practice.

I believe that the biggest driver for many youngsters who adopt self-harming behaviour is not deep emotional distress, but the bandwagon that has developed around mental health issues. For decades, mental illness was shrouded in secrecy and shame, ignored, ridiculed or feared. Not any more.

Now, the mental health and emotional struggles of celebrities and royalty are leading a national conversation on conditions such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, low self-esteem, bipolar disorder and body dysmorphia. 

An unexpected consequence of this is that it’s become "normal" - I’d even go so far as to say fashionable - to be diagnosed with a mental illness.

I do not mean to be flippant, but as psychiatrists we are seeing more and more people referred for mental health treatment who don’t actually have a problem. They may simply be feeling sad, upset or angry — normal reactions to the ups and downs of life. (A teenager told a colleague this week that it was ‘cool’ to have depression. No, it’s not. It’s absolutely earth-shatteringly horrible.)

For those who want to go further in gaining access to the exclusive club of the mentally ill, one surefire way of displaying emotional distress is to self-harm.

There is now a power in emotional fragility - you acquire status and special treatment. Being tortured and sad is a way of making yourself stand out.

It may sound harsh, but I think this explains the new wave of self-harmers. 

Not the youngsters in genuine need of help - those who have severe underlying difficulties in managing their emotions, who secretly cut in order to numb their psychological distress and hide their injuries - but those who self-harm as a theatrical act in order to attract attention.

Mental health services are becoming inundated as a result, and those who really do need help may miss out. This is a tragedy.

While we should never go back to the time when mental illness was something shameful, I think things have swung too far the other way.

Daily Mail