This article was first written for The Counsellors Cafe, an online magazine which you can find here
The problem with life is that it’s hard to make decisions.
The problem with life is that it’s difficult enough getting up in the morning, let alone having to decide what to have for breakfast.
The problem with life is that it’s hard to know where to begin with the long list of things we ‘should’ be doing, or ‘could’ be doing, or even just would like to do.
The problem with life is that there’s always too much of it, and we are being constantly told that we not enough.
The problem with life is knowing when to hold back and when to let it all out.
The problem with life is feeling like a tiny boat on a big huge sea, what is it that anchors us down?
These are the kind of comments I’ve heard from people struggling with self harm. In fact, these are the kinds of comments I hear regularly from all sorts of people: those who struggle with their mental health and keeping their heads above the water; those who use self harm as a coping mechanism; those who are parenting or otherwise very close to people who are struggling with self-harm; those who have small children and are sleep deprived; or just those who are sleep deprived and finding life a struggle.
One of the jobs I [used to] do is training for SelfharmUK, a charity committed to supporting the recovery of all who struggle with self-harm. We offer training on the subject of self-harm, trying to ensure that those who are in a position of supporting young people have facts and information at their disposal in order to help.
Self harm is first and foremost a coping mechanism for when life is too overwhelming, too chaotic, too much and not enough. It’s a coping mechanism that is often stumbled across at the point at which emotions overwhelm us and there is nothing else that works. It often starts with a minor injury but can escalate quickly due to the addictive nature of the adrenaline/endorphin release.
There are lots of statistics which seem to tell the story that self-harm is on the increase. Reports from the NHS and Childline published at the end of 2016 point to a rise in recorded figures around young people seeking help for self-harm. I wonder though, whether this masks another story: it’s difficult to dismiss altogether that more young people are turning to self-harm as a coping mechanism; however I wonder whether what we’re actually seeing is a rise in the amount of young people prepared to talk about it. When we delve into the reasons why people harm themselves and what they are doing to harm themselves we realise that while some of the reasons have become more prevalent in the last 15 years or so: chaotic family life, the power and influence of online community life, loss of control over their own lives. It’s also true that many of the reasons have always been there: trauma or abuse in childhood, bullying, the onset of puberty and all the accompanying hormonal upheaval and emotional fragility, and mental health conditions that begin to manifest themselves in early teenage years.
We are just beginning to see more understanding of mental health in the wider public sphere, and while that can only be a good thing what it will mean is that as more people talk about their struggles with mental health it seems that conditions such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, disassociation identity disorder and borderline personality disorder are becoming more widespread. They aren’t necessarily more prevalent, but more people are talking about these conditions that they have struggled with in silence previously.
In a similar vein, the news in the past 10 years has revealed more and more historical child abuse from many different quarters of society. Where it was once thought of as something that only happened to a handful of children, we are discovering the horrific truth of just how many have suffered the worst possible thing that any parent could imagine happening to their child. Those who survive this kind of ordeal are left with the deepest emotional scarring and are likely to struggle with different mental health conditions for a great deal of their adult lives, including self-harm.
So, how can we help those who are struggling with self-harm? It begins with listening, listening without judgement and without speaking! How many of us know how good it is when we are really listened to? Someone who doesn’t jump in with advice; who doesn’t gasp or recoil when we tell them our darkest secrets; who doesn’t make judgements; who does remind us we are loved unconditionally; who does offer tissues and hugs in the right places; who cries with us. This is what our young people need. If you are struggling with self-harm then find someone who will listen. It might be a counsellor; it might be a good friend; it might be a good pro-recovery website where you can disclose anonymously (I’d suggest you try one of these selfharm.co.uk mind.org.uk youngminds.org.uk time-to-change.org.uk).
If your friend, partner, sister, brother, spouse, daughter, son have disclosed to you that they are struggling the one thing we want to do is ask them to stop, how can we not? But this is difficult ground. Self-harm is a coping mechanism which helps to block or control overwhelming emotions and gives a rush of endorphins or adrenaline and if we take this away then the likelihood is that another coping mechanism will take its place: drug or alcohol abuse, risky behaviour such as risky sexual encounters, or playing ‘chicken’ with trains or other vehicles, etc. Rather than asking them to stop, we need to offer alternatives, to encourage them to delay the need to harm by using positive activities that help with expressing the overwhelming emotions. Activities such as screaming into a pillow, jumping on egg cartons, throwing china against a wall (make this one safer by putting the china into a tied plastic bag first!), going walking/running/swimming/ cycling, playing squash or tennis (channel those emotions into whacking that ball!) taking up knitting or another creative past-time that keeps hands busy and minds focused.
The next step is to encourage the person who is harming to deal with what is lying under the behaviour. What is the emotional need that the harming is helping them cope with? This is something that a counsellor can help with more than a friend or partner or parent. Counselling is becoming more accessible through online sources such as those sites named above. However, the current political climate means that not everyone has the kind of access that many of us would like! It is a necessary step because without dealing with the need the chances of recovery are smaller. I would suggest that you too, as a supporter of someone who is harming, get some help and support. Don’t hold onto the pain of another person, make sure you let it go in a healthy way!
I’d like to see a world in which our children and teenagers don’t feel the need to turn to self-harm to cope. I’d like each child and teenager to have a trusted adult outside their family unit to turn to when things get too much. I’d like the media to stop presenting untruthful images of young men and women; or to give our young men and women the tools to dissect what they see portrayed as ‘normal’ in our media. I’d like everyone to know that they are loved, that they are not perfect and that’s absolutely fine. Perhaps, one day, we will see a world like this. In the meantime though let’s acknowledge that there’s a problem with life and offer a listening ear to those who need it most.