The Daily Mail distorts Childline's report on youth mental health in the UK

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 26 February 2007

It is always sad to see the suffering of someone used in a cheap way to make an eye-catching headline, and there is an absolute classic on the front of the Daily Mail's website today.

'Suicidal five-year-olds calling helpline'
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The alarming decline in the mental health of Britain's youth was revealed today after it emerged that suicidal children as young as five contacted ChildLine.

The Daily Mail story follows the release today of a report on the use of the Childline service in the UK during 2005/6. And the problem with it? Well, The Daily Mail's sensational headline claim appears to be completely untrue.

Here is what the Childline press release about the report actually says:

One in six calls (1,009) to ChildLine last year concerning mental health came from girls who talked about suicide.

...

Of the calls to ChildLine about suicide (1265) nearly four out of five - 1009 - came from girls. There were 256 from boys. But despite the higher number of calls from girls, statistics show that suicide rates among 15-21 year olds are around three times higher for males than females.

The press release also says:

Analysis of calls over the last year to ChildLine, which is a service provided by the NSPCC, reveal that more than 6,000 children and young people called about mental health problems. These were related to depression, eating disorders, family troubles, bullying, living with someone who has a mental illness and physical and sexual abuse. The calls came from children as young as five.

At no point in their press release do Childline claim that a five year-old child has ever called the service about being suicidal. If you delve deeper into the full report issued by Childline you'll find this table.

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Here you can see that ChildLine received 42 calls about suicide from children between the ages of five and eleven - which represents 3.3% of the total number of calls about suicide. Where the age of the caller was known, 96% of children who discussed suicide were 12 and over.

Now, I can't say for sure that amongst those 42 calls there weren't two from suicidal five year-olds, but neither can the Daily Mail say for sure that there were - but that doesn't stop them claiming it as a fact in the headline and opening paragraph of their article.

1 Comment

I was asked to contribute to a national project about 18 months ago looking at media attitudes to mental health and what charities and campaign groups can do to get a more receptive audience. I said at the time I thought things were improving, but then we get headlines like this that disprove that belief. I also thought such stories were handled more sensitively in the regional media, but increasingly I feel that is changing too. The more newspapers develop websites and look into use of video alongside traditional forms of reporting, the more I feel they are becoming much more "tabloid" in their approach. Raising awareness is giving way to amassing hits.

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