Why? That’s the first question people ask, hoping there’s some sort of check-box answer. For me, moving to secondary school brought pressure to fit in and high expectations. It’s only now that I can look back and say that – at the time when people asked ‘why?’ I had no answer. Then life happened – mum had cancer twice, but the driving force was an inner voice shouting, “you need to do this” and the firm belief that things could never be different.
At first I didn’t feel like self-harm was a problem and shunned anyone who tried to help. Years later I found myself very stuck in a cycle of self-harm and it was terrifying.
I have been seen by CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) several times. The turning point was when I saw someone at Harmless for two years – the fact that they would just listen rather than trying to put me in a box helped me open up. After a short stay in a young people’s unit, I was offered DBT (Dialectical Behavioural Therapy) on the NHS and this time I was ready to engage. I liked how it was skills based and offered tangible ways of making small manageable changes.
I wouldn’t say I “overcame” the thoughts and feelings I experienced – quite the opposite – I learned to embrace them. For years I’d tried so hard to suppress my feelings thinking that they were bad, but when I actually spent a few moments just sitting with them they became less powerful. I also use humour whenever I can.
Early on support at school was limited. I was told, “people your age just don’t do things like this”. Since I refused to speak to my parents about it, my main support came from my friends – a few were happy to listen while others decided we could no longer be friends.
Later on, particularly after I was discharged from hospital, school became much more supportive. I had a designated teacher to talk to and near the end they agreed I could attend part-time.
A similar thing happened with my parents. The more I was able to talk and explain what helped, the easier people found it to support me. In the early days self-harm drove a rift between me and my parents, but now my mum is brilliant. When she notices me getting low she keeps calm and suggests we do something to distract me.
I think schools should allocate a member of staff who the young person gets on with, and it should be made clear to the young person when this member of staff will be available. There should also be some sort of safe space where the young person can go if they are feeling distressed. This was an issue for me as I often wandered down corridors and even out of school when being in the classroom got too much. Remember that each young person is an individual and that the reasons behind self-harm, and also what helps, may be very different from person to person. They should have a clear policy at what level to involve parents/medical professionals and young people should be given as much choice as possible in the process.
In terms of prevention, I think the best way is to be open about self-harm and have a discussion facilitated by a specialist (e.g. someone from Harmless). Signposting young people early on to places where they can get help makes a big difference.
Teachers – a little understanding goes a long way. Try to take time to listen to the young person without your fears, reactions or judgements interfering. It is not helpful to show shock, disgust or anger when talking to young people about self harm. Be aware that your reactions may influence how much a young person decides to disclose to you.
To young people experiencing difficult thoughts and feelings I would say hang on in there – things can change for you, even if they have been tough for a long while. If you reach out for help and aren’t happy with it, don’t be afraid to ask to see someone different until you feel comfortable. Get creative and try as many different alternatives to self-harm as possible – you never know what might work (going for a trip in the car helps me). And don’t give up – there are sunsets to stare at, cookies to crunch through and life to be laughed through and lived.