Self-harm, Listen, Understand, Support
With self-harm returning to the news in recent weeks there is an opportunity for us all to reach out to this much misunderstood group of people. The statistics are quite frightening; in a recent survey published in the Lancet it suggested that as many as 1 in 12 young people self-harm and as many as 1 in 10 for young girls and young women.
Teenagers have always faced a difficult time growing up and that is true of those of us who are perhaps an older vintage too. Yet, in today’s society, it seems that our young people face an onslaught to mental and emotional pressures in addition to the teenage angst so familiar to our own autobiographies.
The reasons for self-harm are complex and do not have a single cause. Indeed, they are perhaps the hardest behaviours for society at large to understand often seen as attention seeking or attempts at suicide. Who would not want to reach out to someone who was self-harming to help them rather than dismiss them as attention seeking? Self-harm is rarely an attempt at suicide and while risky behaviour can always go wrong, it is a coping mechanism, perhaps to let emotions out or to punish themselves.
Self-harm is often seen with depression and anxiety; a significant percentage of self-harmers will have or are being abused. It has been called the "bright red scream", and that describes well the sense of getting a release from cutting the body. Almost always sufferers do not value themselves, seeing their problems as their own fault or their just desserts for action or inaction. This lack of self-esteem leads to strong emotions often directed back at themselves and to self-harm.
It is a very lonely place, for who can understand how terrible it is to be you? Who can understand the need to self-harm to keep you sane? All you have experienced is people judging you, and perhaps more so for self-harming.
So, how can you help? First, recognise that, if it is your child or a child you know well, you may need support to help deal with your feelings. Next, really take time to listen to how they feel. Ask how they are, and don’t try to make them feel guilty about the effect on others or try to judge their behaviour. Make sure that they know you are ready and willing to talk to them; do not set limits or make threats, “Unless you stop …”. Finally understand that it is a long process and that it’s likely the person will only stop when they feel ready.
Of course, you may need the help of a healthcare professional such as a doctor, counsellor or specialist nurse. There are many self-help groups that make a difference. One word of warning - the report noted that some web sites and forums did not necessarily discourage self-harm, so as with everything on the internet, be careful.
The statistics show that most self-harmers stop, with only a small percentage continuing into their late twenties, but it's rarely too early to offer the support that the person needs to stop self-harm.
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