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TNS is 10: The truth about self-harm

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Self-harmers are attention seeking, manipulative teenagers. Self-harmers are suicidal. Self-harmers are Goths. Self-harmers can stop if they want to. Self is when you cut yourself with a knife. Myth. Myth. Myth. Myth. Myth!

Self HarmHow have we ended up getting it so wrong when it comes to sorting out self-harm fact from fiction?

Self-harm has a stigma that just won’t budge. This is largely due to a lack of education and information available in schools and the NHS. In the Samaritans report Youth Matters – A Cry For Help 43% of young people knew someone who has self-harmed, but one-in-four didn’t know what to say to a friend who was self-harming.

We have the highest level of self-harm in Europe. Around 25,000 11 to 25 year olds are admitted to Accident and Emergency each year in England because of self-harming. Of course this number is nowhere near the actual amount of people who harm themselves, because many people will administer first aid at home for never seek help.

Statistics show a worrying imbalance. An estimated one in twelve young adults has cut themselves, a massive percentage, and yet education on prevention, support and recovery of self-harm just isn’t there. In the same report by the Samaritans 41% of young people believed that self-harm was selfish and 55% of people thought it was stupid. It’s time we got informed about an issue, which can wreak havoc on an individual’s life, influencing everything from what they wear, to the relationships they have. We need to ask ourselves why there is such a large problem in the UK.

The motivations and methods used differ from one person to the next. Self-harm can be defined as burning; scalding; stabbing; banding heads and other body parts against walls; hair pulling; biting; breaking bones; jumping from heights or in front of vehicles; and swallowing or inserting objects.

Self-harmers may also overdose with medicine(s) or poisonous substances. This is called self-poisoning.

There is no ‘type’ of person that self-harms. The onset can start at seven years old or at fifty years old. And there is no definitive reason why a person begins. One reason may be individual feels issues in their life are out of control.

The act of self-harming can give that person a sense of control. They may be suffering with feelings of loneliness; isolation; stress and frustration. They may be battling with low self-esteem and poor body image. Work pressures, money worries, and, cultural and racial difficulties can all contribute. As do relationship problems, drug and alcohol issues, family breakdowns, bullying or bereavement.

One misconception, that needs to be dissolved, is that people who self-harm are trying to kill themselves. This is rarely the case as Frances McCann, a senior mental health practitioner explains, “There’s a big difference between someone saying they self-harm when they feel angry and a young person saying that they can’t go on any more and want to end everything.”

The truth is the intention to commit suicide is only present in 15% of people. Self-harmers may harm to release and regulate their emotions. When the pressures of life become too high, self-harm becomes a safety valve – a way of relieving built-up tension. In an inquiry into self-harm published in The Truth Hurts report, ‘a National Inquiry into Self Harm among young people’, one respondent said, “I don’t deal with daily stress well, so when extra events occur, however big or small, my tension levels rise, resulting in my needing ‘release’. Self Harm has proven to be most successful in this.”

The report found that after self-harming the person might feel calmer and more focused.

“It sounds awful but I felt I was a nicer person when I cut...balanced, normal.”

Self-harm can be an act of punishment in response to deep-rooted feelings of guilt and shame.

The pain of a cut can temporarily divert the individual’s attention away from inner mental turmoil. Sometimes it can feel like the blood is taking away all the bad feelings.

Some people said that self-harming made them feel reconnected with reality, “Sometimes when I felt numb and empty, scratching myself helped me to feel emotions again. It brought me back to life again.”

Self-harmers can go to great lengths to conceal their wounds, such as wearing long-sleeved tops or tights in sweltering conditions. However, if the wounds are on show some people see this as ‘attention seeking’. This is yet another myth that must be banished.

Self-harmers find it immensely challenging to talk about their feelings of unhappiness and so they show their wounds as they feel this is the only way of communicating to other people how they’re feeling inside and that they need help. As one self-harmer said, “If someone’s crying for help, don’t stand there and judge the way in which they are asking for it.”

The inquiry also found that young people have been met with ridicule and hostility when they turned to professionals for help and that GPs are not sure how to approach the issue directly. Many self-harmers have had negative experiences when attending A and E.

“A and E isn’t usually a positive experience. The last time I had a blood transfusion the consultant said I was wasting blood. The consultants there act as if to say, ‘Not you again’.”

Many self-harmers will hide their activities from their family and friends because they are worried about the potential emotional impact. They fear their friends will view them differently once they’ve discussed their problems and in some instances, this becomes a reality.

Why are we, as a society, so worried about ‘burdening’ people with our problems? Why don’t we talk more?

A self-harmer can feel guilt, shame and embarrassment about what they do to themselves. But why should self-harmers feel what they do is shameful or dirty when we accept eating disorders, alcoholism and drug abuse as serious mental conditions that require professional support and guidance?

I spoke to a group of students at Winchester University about why they think the UK has such a high level of self-harm and why it still holds such a negative stigma.

One student said, “I avoid discussing self harm because I am afraid that I could be talking to someone who is in fact a self-harmer. It’s the act of inflicting injury on yourself that is still so taboo.”

She went on to explain that self-harm was so prevalent in our society but shrouded in secrecy. She said that this meant that a friend might be a self-harmer or have self-harmed and she wouldn’t know. She said that, “Alcoholism is more accepted than self-harm.” And that there are services such as Talk To Frank from which you can educate yourself about drugs, but there is no such service for self-harm.

Because of this lack of information those who disclose their problem to family and friends are often met with silence. The family and friends don’t know how to respond since they are not educated on the subject.

Another student said that the ‘go go go’ work culture and fast-paced lifestyle in England makes people stressed and tense. Self-harm becomes an outlet for this tension. We need to slow down and ease off the pressures, they suggested.

Another student said we have adopted an ‘American culture’ in which everyone must be perfect and beautiful. Self-harm is on ugly blotch on this ideology and is therefore met with disapproval and disgust. She said we have put to high an expectation on ourselves and so when we can’t cope with life we like we have failed.

She added that films have a lot to answer for self-harm stereotypes. They do not portray self-harm in a realistic way, and often characters who self-harm will be ‘goths’ or ‘stunningly beautiful teenagers’ that glamorise the subject.

Thankfully steps are being made to get self-harm out there. A website, thesite.org, has recently launched a self harm advice section, which is a fantastic resource for anyone affected.

The resource has been created by 42nd Street, Depaul UK and Youthnet (the charity that runs thesite.org), in response to the National Inquiry in to self harm.

Vera Martin, Director of 42nd Street, said, “Self harm is often misunderstood and frequently caricatured as attention seeking on the part of the young people who do it. But for many people self-harm is a response to – even a way of managing – deep seated emotional distress and pain.”

For some people self-harm becomes an addictive cycle, a method of coping with the realities of our stressful, unpredictable lives. Breaking the cycle is tough, as the self harmer will have to learn to go through the motions of hurt, anger, stress and grief without using that coping method. Self-harmers need the support and understanding of those around them.

We all have our own coping mechanisms. Some of us smoke, some of us drink alcohol, some of us exercise and some of us grab another bar of chocolate. Judging one person’s coping method compared to another does not help. Getting to the bottom of why we need a coping mechanism in the first place is the key.

You can discover this by chatting to family, friends, going onto thesite.org discussion board or going to see a councillor.

Talking about self-harm and informing yourself about it is the direction we all need to take to change the status of this stigma against self-harmers.

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