I’ve long since lost count of the number of young people I’ve encountered who harm themselves deliberately.
Lots of kids self-harm. Research suggests as many as 1 in 12.
It’s something you remain acutely concerned about, but begin to think of differently after a while. Not that you get used to it; you don’t. But you get to know it; to understand it better.
Most important of all, you learn to deal with it sensitively and sensibly. In other words, you empathise with the child, whilst taking the risks seriously.
So what do we know about kids who self-harm?
Terms & definitions…
The following terms, amongst others, are used in connection with episodes when people harm themselves on purpose:
– Deliberate self-harm
– Deliberate self-injury
Arguably, the most common form of self-harm is skin cutting. However, there are lots of other forms including, but not limited to:
– Ingesting poisons
– Punching walls
– Pulling hair out
– Biting forearms
– Picking at wounds
– Swallowing objects
I found this chart from LifeSigns to be really helpful about the range of behaviours that can constitute self-harm.
As with any number of “mental health” related conditions, self-harm challenges the sensibilities and confounds the understanding of many. Often, what we don’t understand, we tend to fear irrationally or judge unfairly.
Self-harm evokes just such reactions.
I’m no expert in self-harm, but speaking to those who are, and working with innumerable young people with serious issues in this department, I can say with confidence that neither fearing it or judging it helps. On the contrary.
Here are a few myth-busters to get us started…
Quick results summary…
– Self-harm among young people is the number one issue that young people themselves are concerned about among their peers, in a list that includes gangs, bullying, drug use and binge drinking.
– Normally young people are less concerned than GPs, teachers and parents about issues, but self-harm is the one issue where everyone shares an equally high level of concern.
– Over 80% of young people would be very worried if they knew that a friend was self-harming, compared to 50% who would be worried about an eating disorder. Self-harm is also the issue that all groups feel least comfortable approaching with young people.
– Two in three teachers, parents and young people think that they would say the wrong thing if someone turned to them.
– Over half of GPs, teachers and parents think that young people who self-harm are likely to try and commit suicide, and…
– Almost half of these groups see self-harm as a way to manipulate others.
– While there is also considerable sympathy towards young people who self-harm, all groups (professionals included) struggle to empathise with young people who are harming themselves.
– Almost half of GPs feel they do not really understand young people who self-harm.
– Parents associate a young person self-harming with failed parenting and shame; many are frightened to let the issue ‘out of the home’ over a third say they would not seek professional help.
– Teachers feel helpless and unsure as to what they can say; 80% want clear practical advice and materials that they can share directly with young people.
– Three in five GPs report they are concerned that they do not know what language to use when talking to a young person about self-harm.
– Nearly four in five young people say they don’t know where to turn to with questions relating to self-harm.
– There is a stark difference between the places young people feel comfortable seeking support (online) and the places they believe they should be going (parents, teachers or GPs) when it comes to self-harm.
And perhaps most worrying of all…
– The range of information online can vary from supportive to dismissive, from inciting self-harm to mocking and ridiculing those who do it. When a young person looks for information, or information finds a young person, it’s a game of chance as to whether that information will be measured and helpful, or part of an extreme negative view.
So, rather sensibly…
– 97% of young people believe that self-harm should be addressed in schools, with two in three feeling that it should be part of lessons.
I realise that in writing this, I’ve left things somewhat in the air! But it’s not all gloom and doom. There things that can be done to ease the situation by bringing the issues into perspective and out into the open, thus demystifying them.
I will post again very shortly on some things we can all bear in mind to play our part in this process.
Where to go for advice, help, information and support…
Pass it on…
© Jonny Matthew 2013