A recent study by Lancet Psychiatry show there has been an alarming rise in self harm among girls and young women. 16-24 year olds seem to be the most vulnerable, with 19.4% reporting self harm. Speaking on Radio 4’s The Today Programme, a leading psychiatrist explained how she believed incidence of self harm within this age group was even higher. Self harm can often be well concealed and remain undetected.
Worryingly the study also found that of those reporting self harm, only 50% were getting help. I have to admit, I not surprised to hear this.
Self harm is the act of a person deliberately harming themselves physically. This can be done in differing ways; cutting, scratch and pinching, burning, hair pulling, rubbing objects into the skin, punching oneself/banging head. Self harming can be a way for someone to cope with their overwhelming emotions. The act of self harming can be a way of feeling in control. For others it can be a way of translating their emotional anguish into physical pain.
For some years I taught mental health awareness courses. When we would come to the area of self harm I would explain how is can be an important coping mechanism for people. My statement would be met by looks of bewilderment and at least one person asking “how can you say cutting yourself is a way of coping?” In response I would ask them to picture this. You have gone through a horrible relationship break up. You feel upset, distraught, at a loss as to what to do with yourself. You just want to feel better. So you decide you want to go out drinking and get absolutely mortal. Seven hours later you can be seen staggering around in the queue for a taxi, carrying your high heels in one hand and a dirty kebab in the other. You then spend the next day lying on the sofa feeling ill, terribly hung-over and thinking I’m never drinking again? Many of us can identify with this. Whilst this isn’t engaging in behaviour such as cutting, it is a form of coping in a way which is self punishing.
There are ways of coping with life using strategies which are positive and can support our emotional wellbeing. There are also ways of coping which can be self punishing. However we need to remember that for the person who is self harming, it feels like the best way of dealing with their feelings at that time. And how can we support them? We need put our judgements and feelings of shock to one side. We need encourage them to talk, open up and help them get the help they so desperately need.