By Jessica Dickers.
I was surprised to find out that some of my friends have self-harmed. You wouldn’t know by looking at them or even by talking to them.
Kids Helpline says that an increasing number of young people are reporting self-harming behaviour. Cutting is the most common self-harming behaviour but people may also burn themselves (for example with matches or cigarettes), or they may pick at old wounds and scars to keep them going. Some young people may hit themselves or pull out their hair or, in extreme cases, they may deliberately break their bones or overdose on medication.
Self-harm is a very complex and often taboo subject, and many people may be unaware of what is behind the behaviour, or know how to handle it if their child is self-harming.
18-year-old Jodie* started cutting herself when she was in year seven. After the death of a close friend and enduring constant bullying at school, she started cutting her wrists. For Jodie, this was a distraction from all the things that were going on in her life. When she ran out of room on her wrists, she started cutting her legs and thighs. She always hid her scars and cuts from the people around her.
“In your teenager’s class, there is likely to be one to two children who are self-harming”
The National Youth Mental Health Foundation, also known as headspace, helps young people with problems like self-harm. Dr Alex Parker, the director of the headspace Centre of Excellence, says that self-harm usually starts in the teenage years.
“Some of the research at the moment suggests that about seven percent of young Australians aged between 15 and 24-years-old have self-harmed in any 12-month period,” she says.
That means that in your teenager’s class, there is likely to be one to two children who are self-harming.
FORUM DISCUSSION: Teen boy has threatened self-harm if a girl doesn’t go out with him.
Why people self-harm
There is no absolute cause why people self-harm. It is often a very personal thing and people have their own reasons and unique problems. It is often used as a way of coping or distracting yourself from difficult experiences, or it may be a symptom of a bigger mental health problem such as depression or anxiety.
“It doesn’t really hurt more than what is going on [in your life], it’s just a different kind of pain,” says Jodie. “It actually kind of distracts you from what’s really going on.”
“When you’re doing it, you don’t really know what you’re doing, you’re kind of in another world. You know when you get a paper cut and it hurts so much, or when you cut yourself with knife by accident when you’re chopping something up? It doesn’t hurt at all compared to that so it’s like you don’t realise what you’re actually doing.”
One of biggest myths about self-harming behaviour is that young people do it for attention. Alex says this is largely untrue, as most people actually put in a lot of effort to keep their behaviour a secret.
Jodie went to great lengths to keep her cutting behaviour hidden from the people around her, even when it got to the point she was cutting herself every day.
“I’d always have bracelets or something on my wrists and I wouldn’t wear shorts. One time for a wedding I put make-up on it to cover it up, but then it got infected, which looking back was pretty stupid, but I was in year 8 and I didn’t really know,” she said.
“Jodie went to great lengths to keep her cutting behaviour hidden from the people around her”
“More often it’s about using a strategy to manage emotions. It might not the best strategy to use, but [some] young people think it is the only one they have,” says Alex.
Another common misconception is that a person who self-harms is suicidal. For most people, it’s a coping method that they use to deal with bigger, distressing problems. While they may not be actually intending to kill themselves, the dangers of self-harm can have serious health consequences and might lead to death.
Similarly, people who self-harm do not necessarily have a mental illness. Sometimes a mental health problem can be related to this type of behaviour but it can also be a way for young people to deal with things in their life that they are struggling to handle.
Lindsay Taliaferro, an assistant professor of health sciences at the University of Missouri who researches non-suicidal self-injury, recommends that parents strengthen connections with their teens and help foster connections between their children and other positive adult influences.
“One of the most important protective factors against teens engaging in self injury is parent connectedness,” Dr Taliaferro says. “Parents are extremely valuable influences in their children’s lives.”
Signs a teenager may be self-harming
There are a few warning signs that indicate if teenagers may be involved in self-harming behaviour. According to headspace, these may include:
- Changes in mood.
- Changes in eating or sleeping patterns.
- Withdrawing from friends or social activities.
- Problems communicating with friends and family members.
- They may want to hide their clothes or wash clothes or bedding separately.
- Disengaging from things that they used to enjoy doing.
- May have problems with their self-esteem.
- If there are potential injuries, they may avoid situations where they would be showing their bodies such as swimming.
- Any unexplained injuries: scratches, marks, burn etc.
What if you suspect a teenager is self-harming?
No one in Jodie’s circle knew that she was cutting, least of all her parents. It wasn’t until a teacher at school noticed the marks on her arms that she started getting counselling.
“[I wish] I would have talked to someone about it, a friend or someone I trusted,” Jodie says now.
Dr Taliaferro says that parents, teachers and medical professionals sometimes avoid talking to teens about self harm because they aren’t sure how to help.
“Adults don’t need to solve all the teens’ problems, but they should let the teens know they have safe persons they can talk to. Sometimes just talking about their feelings allows young people to articulate what they’re going through and to feel understood, which can provide comfort.”
Jodie* agrees: “You can’t bag them out in a way that is going to make them think that what they’re doing is dumb because that’s not going to help.”
“Try to stay calm and manage your own emotions, and try to discuss it in a really non-threatening manner with the young person involved”
Alex from headspace stresses that if you suspect your teenager or another young person is self-harming, don’t dismiss those concerns.
“Do some things around educating yourself around self-harm, then if you are considering having a talk about it, try to stay calm and manage your own emotions, and try to discuss it in a really non-threatening manner with the young person involved,” she said.
Other things to avoid are panicking or jumping to conclusions about why they are self-harming.
“The most important thing, after you’ve started this conversation with them and showed that you are concerned and supportive, is to know how to help them access help and support,” says Alex.
She adds that it is not a good idea to agree to keep the self-harm a secret. “Their safety is at risk,” says Alex. ”So [it’s best to] help them and get them to the point where they feel comfortable to talk to someone about it.”
Treatment for self-harm
Treating self-harming behaviour can be a long process, as the person might rely on self-harming as a coping mechanism. A counsellor will help the young person identify and practise some safer, alternative coping strategies when they have the urge to self-harm.
“For example, flicking a rubber band, rubbing ice on the skin or using a red pen to mark the skin can all be used to substitute the action of cutting,” says Alex. “Hitting a punching bag to vent anger, exercising and writing your thoughts in a diary may also help to get rid of stressed feelings.”
Jodie tried the rubber band method for immediate relief from the urges to cut but it took her moving schools and continuing with counselling for the cutting behaviour to stop altogether.
“Talking to someone always helps and I know I don’t need to hurt myself to feel better anymore”
Jodie did relapse a few times in year 12, when her final year of school got too stressful, but she now feels a lot better about her life and no longer using cutting as a coping method.
“I have had a few relapses but the last one was a year ago and I’ve had none since. It’s pretty hard not to be able to rely on cutting because there’s no immediate relief, but talking to someone always helps and I know I don’t need to hurt myself to feel better anymore,” she said.
Dr Taliaferro says that although parents play an influential role in teens’ lives, mental health and medical professionals are the best possible resource for helping teens with this behaviour.
*Name has been changed.
If you have a child who self harms, eHeadspace is holding a live webchat on Wednesday 17 July 2013 from 5.00-6.30pm (AEST). You can chat anonymously to mental health professionals and other parents in the same boat. Read more.
Explainer: What is self-harm and why do people do it [The Conversation]
About the writer
This article was written by The Kids Are All Right intern Jessica Dickers, a first year journalism student at Monash University in Melbourne. She is currently a senior roving reporter for the youth website Youthcentral.vic.gov.au and a writer and editor for local Geelong magazine Switch.