Misplaced, misunderstood and self-harming

Sat on a slowly deflating blow-up bed, in a dark, almost empty bedroom, with nothing more than a pink storage box, with two pair of jeans and three T-shirts folded neatly within it.

A lamp sat perched upon it, desperately trying to illuminate the room. A black dustbin bag across the room held the only remaining property of my Dad, that was salvageable from his now-desolated flat.

The Del Vikings, The Drifters and The Ronette’s on vinyl were among what was left of his belongings. His last and only bag of belongings was now the only thing left to keep the memory of the life that he had lead before falling into drug addiction.

Drawing out a neatly-folded letter from the pocket of a pair of uncomfortably snug jeans, absently holding it between small, clammy palms – just for a moment, I sat there and questioned whether it should be read. Being the last thing that he would ever say, were written on this single piece of paper.

“When you said that you would have to get social services involved, I panicked. I lied to you and told you that I had stopped taking drugs. If I lost my daughter, I don’t know what I would do,” read a few lines from the poorly written letter, that had never, and will never be sent. Wiping away frustrated tears, the now, disintegrated letter, went back into its comfortable hiding spot, beneath the still deflating blow-up bed.

Reaching behind the bed, out comes an impressive hunters’ knife – one that I had managed to salvage from Dad’s collection. Fiddling with it, between my small palms, the cat comes bounding towards me, rubbing herself up against my legs, trying desperately to see me bare a smile, though it did the complete opposite.

Racked with guilt, and frustrated hopelessness, suicidal thoughts began to seep in. Staring down at the knife that I was now clenching tightly, frustrated tears began to roll down pale cheeks again. “Should I do it,” I thought. “Will it stop the pain?”

Without a second thought, the blade found its way across bare skin. The cat now bewilderingly looking to me for comfort, jumps up on my lap, sniffing worriedly around the wound. Lying back on the now deflated bed, I stoked her until I fell asleep.

At age thirteen, this marked the beginning of a seven-year struggle with self-harm.

Unfortunately, self-harm isn’t something new, especially amongst young adults, here in the UK. What is new, however, is the rapid increase of young people turning to self-harming behaviour, within the last three years alone.

A study published by the British Medical Journal (BMJ), explored data from around 674 GP practices nationwide, which suggested that self-harm amongst young people had increased by a staggering 68 per cent, with an influx of hospital admissions, following self-harming incidences, in the last year alone.

Almost every report indicates that self-harm amongst teenagers is reaching epidemic levels here in the UK. However, it isn’t just your socially inadequate ’emo’, or your average teenage girl who self-harms as your typical stereotype would suggest.

Self-harm is increasing the UK [Flickr:RN]

Self-harm is a direct response to overwhelming emotions, or a symptom of  mental health illnesses, that many individuals will use to cope.

However, when people discuss the ideas and causes behind self-harm, they tend to focus on what many identify as socially unacceptable behaviours, such as cutting or punching walls. Although, self-harm isn’t always visible.

As the BMJ suggests, those who self-harm are twice as likely to develop issues with alcohol, and extreme dieting. However, binge drinking, or extreme dieting are also forms of self-harm, despite being seen as socially acceptable aspects of British culture.

The BMJ also discussed the relationship between self-harm and suicide. It was suggested that those who uses self-harm, are twice as likely to attempt suicide later in life.

It was reported that 42 per cent of those who had a history of self-harm were likely to act on suicidal thoughts. However, the first thing that most people who self-harm will try to explain, is that self-harm is not the problem, but an attempt to cope with intense and difficult emotions, that they often cannot quite put into words.

The act of self-harm, for many people, brings a sense of relief, as well as helping them to feel as though they are emotionally grounded, if self-harm isn’t used as a form of self-punishment over situations, which they have no control over. However, for some, self-harm is exactly that. A form of self-control. For others, self-harm acts to inform those closest to them, that they need help.

For university student, Holly, self-harm was precisely that – a way to ask for help when she simply didn’t know how. “I was first detained under the Mental Health Act after shaving off all of my hair in December 2008, for my mental health illness of depression, which was then diagnosed as schizophrenia in February 2009,” she told Artefact.

“After being detained and sectioned under the Mental Health Act, things actually started to look up. I was compliant with my medication, which has become the most important aspect of my life.” However, her brother’s reaction to online bullying had an enormous impact on Holly’s mental health and how she chose to deal with it.

“My brother had tried to kill himself, after getting a lot of negative vibes from so called friends on Facebook. Until the news, I was getting better, but when I found out the news, I tried to take more tablets then I was prescribed because the news was too much for me. I intentionally took too many prescribed tablets as a cry for help, because I felt like I couldn’t reach out to anyone,” Holly concluded.

Medication can help with patients who self-harm [Flickr:Steve Snodgrass]

Despite taking enough medication, which could have had such a detrimental effect, Holly had no intentions of killing herself.

Many believe that those who self-harm, will often succumb to suicidal tendencies, whereas this isn’t always the case. Self-harm is often a strategy to prevent a suicide attempt altogether.

However, the response to self-harm can sometimes produce a negative feedback from loved ones. Those who self-harm are often considered attention-seekers, while others respond as if it is a continuous cycle of a half-hearted suicide attempts, which often impacts on the individual who self-harms.

It is often a response to a manifestation of negative emotion, caused by a variety of mental health illnesses such as depression, borderline personality disorder and bi-polar. This mindset towards those who self-harm as a direct response in dealing with these illnesses, can often be the final straw for someone who is already feeling suicidal. This kind of mindset reinforces the negative feelings in which caused the individual to self-harm to begin with – as well as reinforcing the deep seeded idea that those around them simply do not care.

For 25-year-old Jamie, self-harm became his only release from his unpredictable mood swings, which he believes were triggered by his parents’ divorce. “When I was a child, I remember my parent’s relationship being extremely volatile. My mum suffered from depression and drank heavily, which always seemed to start an argument,” Jamie told Artefact.

“Things at home got worse over time, until they started actually, you know, fist fighting. I remember that I’d be sat in my bedroom, with my tiny portable TV, turning up the volume just to try and block them out.

“I remember one time, when I was about 11, Mum had been drinking and an argument had broken out. Mum was just screaming, and screaming and screaming. In the mist of all of it, Mum had told my Dad that I was a mistake, and that I was the reason why their relationship had broken down.

“My parents split up when I was 13, and I was put in my grandparent’s care. That’s when I started self-harming. I blamed myself for their problems, and wished that I could make things right, but I couldn’t. I know it sounds fucking stupid, but you don’t really think logically when you’re a child, and so pent up with issues,” Jamie explained.

However, after an argument regarding Jamie’s self-harm, he had decided that he had finally had enough. “One day, Grandad asked me to help him in the garden, but I had fresh cuts up my arms. I didn’t feel as though I could say no to him though. Something aggravated the cuts and made them bleed again. Grandad noticed, and a major argument broke out. They told me that I had broken their hearts by being selfish and self-centred. That night, I ended up overdosing.”

After being admitted to hospital and talking to a therapist, Jamie was free to go home as an out-patient. “I started seeing a therapist every week and ended up being diagnosed with depression. They helped me work on the things that I had tried to keep hidden. There are still days now that I feel as though I need to hurt myself, but no matter how hard things get, tomorrow is always a new day, and that’s what I have to focus on,” Jamie told us.

Self-harm is often linked to controlling emotion [Flickr:♣♦♥♠]

Once self-harming becomes a coping mechanism, it seems almost impossible to stop. However, both Jamie and Holly managed to find alternative and safer ways to deal with their emotions.

Yet, it isn’t the case for everyone – especially when much of societal culture demonises self-harming behaviours as a form of manipulative attention-seeking. Telling those that self-harm, that they’re manipulative, attention-seeking, and that they ‘don’t really want to die’, are actively dangerous assumptions to make, and ultimately untrue.

Self-harm is such a private act, that most people who do it will go to great lengths to keep it hidden from those around them. It isn’t until something goes wrong, that their behaviour is clear for everyone to see. However, those who do seek help from their GP, or those who present themselves at A&E, after a self-harming incident, are more likely to commit suicide within a year of trying to seek help.

Eva Doubrabska, a first aider who has seen many students succumb to self-harming explains just how self-harm and mental health go hand-in-hand. “The first thing that is needed, is to not be judgmental about it. Self-harm is the physical manifestation of a mental health issue, so one often goes with the other, and often the mental health issue needs to be addressed before the self-harming can get better,” Eva told Artefact.

“Self-harm is mostly about gaining control and dealing with difficult emotions. I think that, if the physical pain is bigger than the emotional pain, it often takes away the focus from the emotional pain. Self-harming isn’t about fitting into a group or attention seeking.

“Unfortunately, this mind-set stops some from seeking help. There are different methods of self-harm, even if some people just drink a lot or take drugs. It’s all a way of self-harming and what I try to do is help students find alternative ways of dealing with it. Even if they decide to use ice, if they are not ready to stop self-harming completely,” Eva explained

“It’s most important that they are safe. Whatever the reason behind self-harming, it needs to be dealt with. Telling students, or anyone who does it, to ‘just don’t do it’, it’s not going to help. Although, I see my role as somebody who is mainly there to take care of the wound. I’m not there to judge or to ask difficult questions. But the situation with young people self-harming isn’t just going to go away, and it needs to be dealt with,” Eva concluded.

It is unreasonable to expect those who self-harm to change this behaviour, especially if their environment isn’t providing a place where they can feel safe, and more importantly, validated enough to explore the reasoning behind their self-harming behaviour.

Reversing the rapid rise of self-harming incidents will not improve overnight, although, it must start somewhere. Creating an environment where individuals feel capable in putting their struggles into words, would be the first step in dealing with the idea of self-harm as a coping mechanism.

Greater access to talking therapies, would of course be needed. Through talking therapies, discussing and working upon the challenging aspects of trauma or mood, could be of great use to someone who is likely to resort to self-harm.

However, to not feel judged when discussing self-harm, could be most beneficial to those among us who are risking their only form of consistency. Feeling judged, not only allows those to cling to self-harm more tightly, but hinders conversations around the issue altogether.

Those who feel judged, are less likely to come forward, and openly discuss not only self-harm, but what caused them to self-harm to begin with. This hinders progression not only for those who self-harm, but the understanding of self-harm.

No matter the reasoning behind self-harm, nor what those around us think, seeking help is always the better option in dealing with intense emotions. It is simply allowing yourself to overcome your fears of judgement long enough to make that first call to your local GP.

 

 


Featured image by ♣♦♥♠ via Flickr CC