The study suggested that GPs could be getting better at picking up self-harm, but it was likely that rising stress and psychological problems in young people were also behind the trend.
Ask any of your young people, and chances are they know somebody who is struggling with self-harm. Sadly, they may have harmed themselves. It’s a daunting issue to tackle because, to many of us, it can seem so hard to understand.
The truth is, we don’t know how many young people self-harm, and we never have. It will be more than the accepted figures, because the statistics are based on those who have accessed medical help for their self-harm. There are two ways to look at the statistics. It may well be the case that more young people are self-harming, but it could equally be that we’re creating a culture where it’s increasingly acceptable to ask for help, or it could be a bit of both.
Statistically, girls self-harm the most. We know that boys also self-harm, but they just may not be recognised in statistics. Boys are likely to harm themselves in different ways, like getting in fights they’re unlikely to win. If they did so in order to cause themselves injury, that’s self-harm even if it isn’t recorded as such.
So, how can we tackle self-harm? By promoting resilience. First and foremost, we think wellbeing should be part of our children’s and youth programmes. You don’t need to wait until a child is struggling to implement this. Talk to your young people about both wellbeing and mental illness. Also, try to have an open space for discussion. We need to create a culture where mental health is not taboo.
If one of your young people discloses self-harm:
- Respond calmly, and reassure them that they have done the right thing by telling you. It will have taken a lot of courage, but now that it’s out in the open they can start to receive support. Contrary to the stats, they may not be feeling suicidal, but if you’re worried, gently ask.
- Don’t try to handle it on your own. They need to see their GP and may be referred on, but waiting lists can be long and you can be a constant support in their lives. Learning positive coping strategies is important for recovery, so you’ll make a huge difference by teaching (and modelling) good self-care and coping well.
- Understand confidentiality. In most cases, a child’s parent needs to know. Unless they’re in immediate danger, it’s better coming from the young person themselves. Perhaps help them plan how to have that conversation, but they need to know that unless they tell their parents, you’ll have to. Tell your safeguarding co-ordinator, but beyond that keep it to those who need to know.
- Avoid labels. Self-harming does not change a young person’s identity. Labels like ‘self-harmer’ or ‘cutter’ are unhelpful. Try to make sure they know that you still see them in the same way as before.
- Learn more about self-harm. There’s lots of information out there, and organisations who will be happy to offer advice and resources (see youthandchildrens.work/links).
Sasha Austin-Seade & Helen Bainbridge work for Phase, Hitchin