Young Scots who have been detained for mental health reasons are self-harming at a growing rate, according to a new report.

A paper published by the Mental Welfare Commission has analysed the detentions of people aged 16 and 17.

Self-harm was found to be a key characteristic - particularly among young women - with reports of incidents rising from 50% of patients in 2014/15 rose to two thirds (66%) in 2018/19.

What is being done?

The number of 16 and 17-year-olds being detained in Scotland under the Mental Health Act has risen from 106 in 2014/15 to 173 in 2018/19, according to the report.

While it does not attempt to explain why the detentions of young people are increasing, the report will now help to develop alternatives to hospital admissions.

Dr Arun Chopra, medical director of the commission, said: “Mental illness in young people can be short term, or can be the start of a prolonged period of difficulty.

“It can disrupt education, the development of friendships and the transition into adulthood, significantly affecting both the young person and their family or carers. Getting the right help early can make a major difference.

“We conducted this analysis because we knew that detentions of young people were rising, and we wanted to understand better the characteristics and presentations of young people who are so unwell that they need to be treated under the law.

“We now aim to share these findings and hope they might be a helpful contribution for young people, those important to them and the services and clinicians working with them, in considering who might be supported by developing intensive treatment services in the community and alternatives to hospital admissions.”

What other factors did the study show?

Over the five-year period, 60% of detained patients displayed self-harming behaviours – including suicidality or deliberate self-harm.

Most detentions related to concerns about the patient’s own safety, though boys were more often a risk to themselves and to others compared with girls.

Psychotic symptoms were the most common features (40%), with a higher proportion among boys than girls (54% and 32%, respectively).

Dr Justin Williams, vice-chairman of the child and adolescent faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Scotland, said: “These are very worrying figures and further evidence that the mental health of our young people is deteriorating at an alarming rate, as we see escalating levels of mental ill-health at all levels.

“Every single one of those 163 cases represents a young person whose life has been thrown into complete turmoil by their mental illness and the levels of risk and distress are incalculable.

“We should be doing everything we can to stop each person’s mental health deteriorating to the point of detention.”

What is mental health detention?

Under the Mental Health (Scotland) Act 2015 there are two types of detention that can be recommended.

A short-term detention is the usual route into hospital under the law as there are more safeguards for the individual.

This can only happen if recommended by a psychiatrist and a mental health officer. 

An emergency detention certificate allows a person to be held in hospital for up to 72 hours while their condition is assessed. 

This can only take place when recommended by a doctor and where possible, a mental health officer must also agree.