Self-harm is at epidemic proportions and is not privy to any socio-economic status. Although there are higher rates of girls self-harming, boys self-harming is on the rise. With this in mind, why are we not talking about these issues more? Why are we not reading about it in the papers? Why aren’t we listening to experts on talk shows guiding us on how to deal with these delicate topics?
In short, there is a complete misunderstanding in society that drives these discussions underground. The myth being that if we talk about these issues we impress or inspire these thoughts in the minds of young people. This could not be further from the truth. In my years as a school psychologist and in private practice with young people in crisis, I have found that the only way to adequately address this issue is by constant discussion. In my experience, the most successful course of action is a dual approach of one on one counseling and open discussion with the school community at large.
Many parents are unaware of the fact that self-harm is a contagion. By this I mean when one person, or small group start self-harming, others promptly follow suit. Unfortunately the same applies to suicide. More often than not, when one suicides in a school or community, there is usually one or two that follow. This does not need to be the case and it breaks my heart when this occurs.
There is another complicating factor impacting greatly on this. That being the ‘Cutting for Beiber’ or ‘Cutting for Zane Malik’ trend. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s when groups of fans show their support and loyalty for their favorite singer by cutting and posting it online with the relevant hashtag. Terrifyingly, there are literally thousands of girls who are doing this. What is most infuriating is the celebrities involved have taken no action to curb this behaviour. More people in high profile positions should publicly appeal to young people in order to help address self harm.
The most infuriating and common response to this disturbing behaviour is the throw away line, “they are just attention seeking”. Shockingly the response in this country to attention seekers is to ignore them. I am yet to make sense of how this is meant to help a person in crisis. It is my educated and experienced opinion that this is the stepping-stone to suicide is self-harm, and if the cry for help goes unheard, the next step can be fatal. These two issues are, therefore, inexplicably linked.
Some may be arguing at this point that giving self-harm practices attention simply encourages the young person to engage in this act when needing attention. It is important to clarify at this point that I am not suggesting you give attention to the act itself, but instead give time, patience and understanding to the young person in need. Discuss the underlying issues that are influencing the act. Go to great lengths to implement a support network for the young person that involves trained counselors, teachers and family members. Do not ignore them.
Secondly, it is important to discuss other options and alternatives when the intensity of feelings are overwhelming them. It is my experience that these feelings reach an intense peak that does not last very long. Come up with a strategy that allows the young person to identify when they are winding up and give them an out. I have found that calling or texting someone they trust and saying a code word that indicates their level of distress can help. It takes away the shame and enables the person at the other end of the phone to understand them and talk them through.
Through lots of discussion and open communication with all in a young person’s world I have witnessed these contagious trends undergo massive shifts and even completely dissolve. I am yet to see dismissiveness, secrecy and ignorance work. It is often a phase that these young people go through but it is crucial that we nurture them through this time. I have seen how badly it can end when this is not done.
For the record, it is not only my professional experience that tells me this approach works but it is also my personal experience as a mother of a daughter who went through this for some time. I also lost my best friend to suicide 18 years ago – a brutal and unnecessary way to learn the importance of identifying the early signs.
My passion for this issue runs deep and I am interested in helping and responding to all of you who are experiencing this or know someone who is. I know that there is very little information out there so please feel free to comment below and let’s get talking!