Children as young as four presenting with anxiety and self-harm

Major study of 1,000 primary school principals highlights scale of emotional problems

Significant numbers of primary school children as young as four are presenting with serious mental health difficulties such as anxiety, depression and self-harm, according to a major new study.

The findings, based on a survey of more than 1,000 school principals, throws new light on the extent and range of emotional problems young children are facing in schools.

The vast majority of principals reported problems among schoolchildren relating to “general family issues” (86 per cent), separation or marital breakdown and anxiety (both 79 per cent).

Bullying (54 per cent), cyber-bullying (37 per cent), self-harm, depression (both 28 per cent ), suicidal ideation (23 per cent ) eating disorders (15 per cent) and sexual identity issues (9 per cent ) were also cited as significant issues.


The Dublin City University study, which included interviews with principals and counsellors, finds school leaders felt ill-equipped to respond to the complexity of children's needs.

It recommends the urgent establishment of a nationwide primary schools’ counselling service.

‘Incredible burden’

The report’s lead author, Dr Rosaleen McElvaney, said the findings indicated there was an “incredible burden” on school principals to find funding to help children.

“They can’t simply turn a blind eye to what they are being confronted with on a daily basis,” she said.

“Teachers are really struggling to help children. We know that addressing children’s psychological difficulties enhances their learning experience, but the extent and range of difficulties that children are presenting with in school needs urgent attention, not only to improve their educational chances but to help them deal with their emotional struggles”.

The report, funded by St Patrick's Mental Health Services, is due to be launched by the Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon on Wednesday.

Chief executive for St Patrick's Mental Health Services, Paul Gilligan, said Irish research suggests that up to one in three Irish children under 13 experience mental health difficulties.


“This report shows that mental health supports in school are vital. Now, more than ever, children are dealing with complex and challenging issues which have a significant effect on their wellbeing,” he said.

“Our experiences as children shape who we are as adults and it is throughout childhood that we develop our emotional capabilities.”

There were also concerns over the impact of social media and increased sexualisation of primary school children in fifth and sixth class.

As one principal told researchers: “We have a child in third class who went through a period of self-harming. He’s only eight.”

Principals also described challenging family circumstances such as parental separation, child protection issues, alcohol and drug misuse in the home, and children not knowing their fathers.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent