Self-harm: boys do it too…

So how can we help?

Anyone working with troubled young people for long enough will encounter self-harm.

Photo courtesy of ©123rf/akz (adapted)

Photo courtesy of ©123rf/akz (adapted)

But, like anything that we think we know about, we need to challenge our own presumptions.

What about boys and self-harm?…

One of the myths about self-harm – perhaps the greatest of the all – is that it’s what teenage girls do.

And clearly they do: in the year 2013-14 almost 6000 girls aged 10-14 were admitted to hospital in relation to self-harming.

But what about boys? Do they injure themselves, too?

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Well, yes. In fact men do too, as do women. In the last year or so there’s a been a significant increase in the number of boys admitted to hospital for self-harm (as there has for girls).

Check out these figures from The Health & Social Care Information Centre:

Figures: Health & Social Care Information Centre

Figures: Health & Social Care Information Centre

Experts say that the increase may be a reflection of more people coming forward, rather than more of it happening. If this is the case, then it is heartening. Why?…

Myths keep boys quiet…

Ask yourself a few questions:

  • Do we really believe that young women suffer more emotional upset than young men?
  • Do boys endure fewer teenage-related anxieties and stresses than girls?
  • Are girls so less able to cope that they revert to self-harming and boys don’t?
  • Is dealing with mental health problems an exclusively female problem?

Of course it isn’t. It sounds nuts when you say it like that!

And yet to assign self-harm to girls, and forget the boys, is to get into similarly nonsensical territory.

Even in this modern age, there is still a view that the British societal “norm” is that males don’t easily express themselves emotionally. They keep things in. They cope and get on with life – or they try to.

But do they? Well, some do, but many don’t. And, like girls, some of them self-harm as a way of trying to cope.

So, the fact that more boys (and girls!) are coming forward may be a good thing. Maybe the stereotype isn’t as powerful as it used to be…

What can we do to help?

Start by reading some general tips on how to respond to self-harm if/when you encounter it – read them here.

Here are few thoughts on how we – particularly male carers and workers – might better help boys to talk about their self-harm:

  • Assume they may be self-harming – this sounds a bit extreme. But if we make this assumption it will guard us against comments and attitudes that may keep self-harming boys quiet.
  • Make a point of feelings – self-harm is a response to feelings. Feelings that overwhelm and the need to regain some sense of coping and control. Talking about feelings as being perfectly normal, may be a vital first step to helping someone else to talk.
  • Don’t repeat the stereotypes – gently challenging stereotypes about self-harm and making clear statements that boys do it too, can break the hold of gendered charicatures and open up the way for someone to talk more openly.
  • Express your own feelings – I’m not suggesting we all start emoting with our service users! But some degree of appropriate self-disclosure about our own feelings sets up an empathic basis for a boy who may need to disclose his self-harm. Talking about things we’ve had to cope with in the past, commenting about having “struggled” with our own feelings, are examples of this.

Of course, these principles stand for female workers too. Though you guys may have to work a little harder to help boys understand these things. (Or maybe not!)

Final word…

Like all assumptions, self-harming as a “girl thing” needs to be challenged and brought down.

The greatest step forward will be when professionals working with troubled young men just accept that some of them self-harm and make looking out for this and “normalising it” part of our everyday working practice.

Click here for your FREE copy of my e-book: Connecting With Troubled Young People’

Where to go for advice, help, information and support…

  • SelfharmUK website – good for info, resources, training, etc. Also useful for parents, carers and those struggling with self-harm themselves.
  • LifeSigns male self-injury fact sheet – here (pdf download)
  • Get the latest HSCIC statistics from their annual report – here (pdf download)

What do you think?

  • What lessons have you learned about self-harm?
  • Have you come across useful information or resources to help?

Please let me know what your thoughts are… Leave a comment below or click here.

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© Jonny Matthew 2015

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