Quite a serious post today, which has been triggered by my concerns about a recent online phenomenon which came to my attention yesterday. It seems that hundreds (thousands?) of young people are being encouraged- or are encouraging each other – to self harm in the name of a popular teen pop star and to post about it online. I don’t want to name the pop star, nor quote the twitter hashtag that’s been used to promote this awful trend, for fear of somehow encouraging the trend myself. As we’ve already seen with websites promoting other destructive behaviours such as anorexia, these things can quickly become viral and there’s no telling how much influence they may have among the young.
What is self harming? It’s the deliberate act of injuring or hurting oneself, often involving cutting or burning, but it comes in many other destructive forms too, including self neglect. It is extremely prevalent, especially among the young, and particularly young women, and it is sadly on the rise. However it is not restricted to the young, more adults are seeking help for self harm and it is particularly prevalent among adults suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Self harming behaviour often starts as a result of going through traumatic or painful experiences, or as a result of not receiving enough love or support and other difficulties. People who self harm usually have very low self esteem, and it can be a way of expressing repressed anger and hurt. Many people who self harm say that it is like a type of release. It is often a cry for help. But often, in turn, it results in feelings of social stigma, and it can lead to a negative spiral of harming and increased feelings of shame. There is still quite a negative attitude towards self harming in society, as sufferers are thought to be bringing their problems upon themselves. Thankfully, self harming is usually not connected with an increased risk of suicide, but this also means that treatment approaches must be different.
This latest trend worries me because teens have a desire to belong and be accepted by their peers. Young people who otherwise may not have been tempted to self harm may do so because of a wish to identify with other young people who have the same interests as them (in this case a pop star). This adds an extra dimension to the problem that parents or carers may struggle with.
What can you do if someone you know is self harming? No matter how alarming his or her behaviour may be, it is usually not a good idea to get angry with or tell him or her to stop, this is more likely to compound the behaviour or problem. Encourage him or her to talk about what he or she is doing, either to you, or to someone else that he or she feels comfortable with, and allow him or her to talk without being judged. Just listen and give support. Encourage him or her to speak to someone specialised or qualified to help – a counsellor, therapist, doctor or young person’s advisor. There are many organisations that can help -see below for links.
Therapy for self harming usually focuses on helping the sufferer to change their thoughts and behaviour over time. Finding replacement behaviours for self harming can be helpful. Encourage the sufferer to engage in something creative, when he or she has an urge to harm him/herself, such as writing, drawing, painting, singing or playing music. Physical activity is also very helpful: encourage sufferers to get active somehow, especially if they can become part of a group or team, as this will help their feelings of acceptance and support. If the urge is still strong, he or she could be encouraged to adopt a different, less injurious practice, such as writing or drawing on the body in red pen, holding ice cubes against the skin, pinging an elastic band on the wrist – these activities can help to satisfy the ‘need’ for some sort of physical feeling or visual effect. It may also help the sufferer to be given other opportunities to vent anger, frustration, upset, etc. for example hitting a cushion or punchbag or being able to shout out loudly.
What is important is that longer term the sufferer’s view of him or herself changes. People who self harm often feel that some of their emotional needs are not being met. Therapy can help them to understand and work on this. Therapy can also help people to avoid adopting replacement behaviours that may be just as harmful (such as excess use of alcohol or drugs). I have a personal interest in self harming and have undergone training in helping people to manage it. Please get in touch if you’d like to discuss it confidentially, whether it is affecting you or someone close to you.
Mind Charity – About Self Harming – there is a helpful PDF booklet that you can download here
Harmless – a user led support organisation
Young Minds – The voice of young people’s mental health and wellbeing