If you open a newspaper you could be forgiven for thinking there is a self-harm crisis in our schools. There has certainly been an increase in awareness of self harm as an issue. It affects girls and young women in particular, but also boys and young men. Modern teenage lives can be stressful and very challenging to say the least. There is a concern that self-harming practices such as cutting or burning are becoming ‘normalised’ behaviour, and are being ‘learnt’ by children from their peer groups as a coping mechanism for the anxiety, stress, depression and anger that many children are bound to experience from time to time. An NHS survey in 2017 found that 1 in 5 young women (and 1 in 10 young men) between 17 and 19 had self harmed or attempted suicide. And a Lancet Psychiatry survey also found that 1 in 5 young women in the 16-24 age group had cut or harmed themselves. The evidence also seems to show that children who self harm are at greater risk of suicide in later life. This is an important issue.
How can you identify if someone you know or care for is self harming or at risk of self-harm?
Look out for changes in behaviour. This is a difficult one – some behavioural change is part of growing up, as young people start to experiment and interact with others, and find their way in the world. But, has there been a fundamental change in behaviour with the person becoming louder and more aggressive than before? or alternatively, more withdrawn and unsocial than before?Sometimes those who self harm will cover their bodies more and routinely wear long sleeve clothing. They may also stop taking part in sport where they had previously been keen to participate.
Why do people self-harm? In most cases there is no simple explanation and there is rarely one cause. There can be many contributing factors, and sometimes triggers such as family problems or parents getting divorced can play a part. People who self harm do so to get relief from mental or psychological pressures or stresses they are experiencing, and the short term feelings of release and relief they get as a result can lead to damaging patterns of repeat behaviour.
What can be done if you think someone close to you is self harming? It’s important to address any concerns in a calm, low key and non-judgmental way. Perhaps a short conversation in the car on the way to school, for example. The next step may be to work out coping strategies. In other words, ways to channel the ‘self harm’ impulse, or replace/distract from it. In some cases, simple techniques such as having an elastic band on your wrist to ‘snap’ against your skin can help. Other approaches may include using music, exercise, or looking after a pet.
Perhaps the most important message is that if you identify a problem, get help. Coping strategies won’t address the underlying reasons for self harming, and generally therapy would be a good idea for this. Help is available through the NHS through your GP. Also, School and Colleges generally have ‘in house’ counselling services available to their students. The Charitable sector also provides some support and private therapy and Counselling are always available and easily accessible. As the impact of self harm and children’s mental health in general is becoming better known, more resources are being applied and new ways to help young people in ways they can access and relate to are being developed. A brilliant example of this is the ‘Shout’ text helpline recently launched by Princes William and Harry, with their wives. This is a text helpline staffed by trained counsellors, which provides an emergency response where someone is considering self harm. It is not a counselling service as such, and is not intended to replace therapy, but is does provide an emergency response to take the heat out of a crisis situation, in a way that young people are comfortable accessing, and are more likely to use than a call-based charitable service such as the Samaritans.