Teenagers’ epidemic of self-harm
A hidden epidemic of self-harm is affecting teenagers across Britain, with one adolescent in 12 deliberately injuring themselves on a regular basis.
The most comprehensive report into the issue, to be published tomorrow, will say that there are likely to be around two children in every classroom who self-harm. ‘We have the highest rate of self-harm in Europe, but the universal misunderstanding about self-harm is so overwhelming that numbers will rise even further unless we act immediately,’ said Catherine McLoughlin, chairwoman of the first ever national inquiry into self-harm among young people. She said that some reports suggested up to one in five adolescents were ‘engaging in this self-destructive behaviour’, a subject that was surrounded in ‘guilt and secrecy’.
The panel discovered that children as young as five were deliberately hurting themselves, but said family and friends were often unaware that someone close to them was injuring themselves.
The inquiry, set up two years ago by the Camelot Foundation, the lottery firm’s charitable arm, and the Mental Health Foundation, spoke to more than 350 organisations and individuals. It brought together all available work on self-harm and also commissioned research. The report, ‘Truth Hurts’, will say that victims who seek help are often met with ridicule or hostility. ‘This is a hidden epidemic of horrific proportions and we know virtually nothing about why it happens or how to stop it,’ said McLoughlin. ‘Basically, we understand about as much about self-harm as we did about anorexia 20 years ago.’
It emerged yesterday that people who self-harm are being allowed to cut themselves under the supervision of nurses in a pilot scheme being carried out by the South Staffordshire NHS Trust. It is hoped that supervision, rather than prohibition, will help patients find better ways of dealing with their problems.
Consultant nurse Chris Holley, who is organising the pilot, said guidelines had been drawn up to ensure that it took place in a safe way and was accompanied by efforts to encourage self-harmers to stop.
Young people consulted for the ‘Truth Hurts’ inquiry reported a range of factors that had triggered self-harming, including bullying, not getting on with parents, stress and worrying about academic performance and exams. Other reasons cited included family breakdown, bereavement, problems to do with race, culture or religion, and low self-esteem.
The range of reasons makes prevention difficult but when young people themselves try to get help, McLoughlin said, they are often met with reactions ranging from panic and revulsion to disgust and condemnation.
‘Over and over again, the young people told us that their experience of asking for help often made their situation worse,’ said McLoughlin. ‘Others were met with ridicule or hostility from the professionals they turned to for help.’
Linda Dunion, director of the See Me campaign, which seeks to raise awareness of the issue in Scotland, agrees that the stigma of self-harm discourages young people from seeking help. ‘Our research shows that over 40 per cent of adults think young people who self-harm are attention-seeking, one in three feel they are manipulative and 15 per cent believe it is the sign of a failed suicide attempt.’
But self-harm is a sign of a young person struggling to survive, says Jackie Cox, a psychologist and counsellor at Harrow school and consultant for Etch Teacher Training, a specialist organisation helping teachers to deal with difficult issues. ‘Self-harm is a sign of emotional distress,’ she said. ‘It is a survival mechanism that young people use to cope with underlying emotional and psychological trauma.’
One teenager who wished to remain anonymous said his self-harm was a method of survival. ‘It was a way to get rid of the hurt, anger and pain,’ he said. ‘But the rush it gave, the sense of feeling better, was always so short-lived that I had to do it many times. I’ve been through days when I haven’t been able to get up in the morning and function without self-harm,’ he added. ‘I don’t know how to release my feelings in any other way. Without self-harm, I doubt I would be alive now.’
Stigmatising young self-harmers when they are most in need of help could drive their behaviour even further underground, where it could increase in severity, says Cox.
‘Self-harm can trigger chemicals that bring about a very positive feeling of calm and wellbeing,’ she said. ‘But greater levels of harm often have to be inflicted to achieve the same effect, which can lead to an injury requiring professional treatment, or worse.’
McLoughlin hopes the report will be used as an agenda for change across the government, as well as education, health and social service groups.
Among its demands are calls for a ‘Healthy Schools Standard’ that specifically addresses issues of self-harm, and a nationwide programme of training for all adults working with children.
In addition, the panel will press for the launch of a national campaign aimed at removing the stigmas surrounding self- harm.
The Mental Health Foundation is to set up a training centre for all those working with young people, while the Camelot Foundation will commission a web-based centre of excellence on self-harm, making up-to-date information easily accessible on a nationwide basis.
‘It is time to stop passing judgment and start acting,’ said McLoughlin. ‘Secrecy and shame need to be replaced with understanding and support. We can no longer ignore the fact that self-harm is blighting the lives of our young people.’
Case study: ‘I feel guilty about it, but it was the only way I could keep going’: Lisa, age 13
‘I still don’t fully understand why I began cutting my wrists. I was 12 years old when I began, and pretty depressed, angry and isolated. One day, I accidentally hit my hand really hard against my bed and experienced this sudden feeling of relief. Then for some reason I decided to cut myself to see if I could make the good feelings last longer.
‘The first time I cut myself, I barely made a mark but I did feel better, so I did it again a couple of days later but that time, I cut a bit deeper. I began cutting myself once a week on average. I felt guilty about what I was doing but it became the only way I could keep going. I really wanted help; I wanted to stop but didn’t know who I could ask.
‘I hid what I was doing for months, but one night my mum came to tuck me up and saw my scars. I wasn’t relieved she had found out: I didn’t cut myself as a cry for help and the idea of having to stop was terrifying. Now, I am glad she found out because otherwise, I would have continued. Eventually, I might have accidentally cut too deeply and ended up in hospital.
‘Now I’m getting counselling, I haven’t cut myself for nine months. But when I was upset recently, I deliberately punched the wall so hard my knuckles bled. Stopping self-harming is far harder than it ever was to start. I want to stop but I struggle every day.’ Autor: Amelia Hill