Last week saw a flood of stories on the prevalence of self harm amongst our young people and especially girls and LGBTQ+ youth, stemming from the publication of the Children’s Society’s “The Good Childhood Report”.
The report makes interesting and saddening reading, highlighting the deterioration in the emotional wellbeing and life satisfaction of children – those who if our parents’ are to be believed are supposed to be living out the best years of their lives.
What I found even more interesting, and alarming, in some of the commentary and discussion I read was the angles taken on it by some.
- Disbelief – this can’t possibly be true. The definition is too vague. I didn’t know anyone who did this so it can’t really be a thing, it’s exaggerated.
- Blame the media/internet/awareness – I never knew about this stuff when I was young so it’s because people see tv stories about it, or look it up online, or (even better) mental health awareness campaigns tell them that self harm is a thing, so people then go and try it.
- Focus solely on the self harm – what can we do to stop people harming themselves?
So few seemed to be interested in discussing why 15% of young people are feeling the need to hurt themselves. 22% girls. 45% of those who may be LGBTQ+. (And ignoring the fact that the question asked wouldn’t necessarily pick up those, probably mainly boys – who turn the same urges outwards and get into fights or engage in risky behaviour)
Ignoring the rest of the report which explores the decline in happiness experienced by the young – as Matthew Reed, Chief Executive puts it in his foreword:
Children’s happiness with their lives had risen steadily in the 15 years from 1995 to 2010. But this progress has now been reversed and children’s well-being is now as low as it was two decades ago.
Hurting yourself is not ideal. Sometimes indeed it can be very dangerous. But to focus too intently on the act of self harm is to not see the wood for the trees. To not understand the nature of the act.
Self harm is not the problem. It is a symptom. Even if, for the sake of argument, we say that some people decide to hurt themselves because they heard about it on tv, the internet, or a mental health campaign. You will not continue to do it, unless it does something for you. Unless it serves a purpose. If it just hurts, and you have no need – it won’t become a habit. But for some, self harm serves a very real purpose in that it helps to relieve, express, or respond to deep emotional pain.
If someone hurts themselves and finds that it somehow distracts from, or drowns out the pain – how do we think it feels when someone tells them they shouldn’t do it?
Self harm is not ideal. We need to help people to develop healthier, less risky coping mechanisms. But it is not the main problem. It is the white horses on the wave as it crashes to shore, the sound of the surf on the pebbles. The problem is the ocean. That deep, dark, powerful and destructive mass which is the sadness, distress, anger, fear, hurt, frustration, anxiety that people are experiencing, which makes them seek ways to block out the noise, or show their emotions, or punish themselves for not coping, or feeling like a bad person. That is what we need to understand.
Why are our children in such pain?
We need to listen. Not assume. Not say it’s all social media, or exams. Because it’s so much more.
I was one of those LGBTQ+ children. I cut myself to relieve the pain caused by loneliness, emotional turmoil, feeling like I couldn’t talk to anyone, like my family would reject me. I was also worried about my exams, the future, my physical appearance, etc. etc. etc. The world these days is different but the same. Ensuring our children are loved, protected and accepted for who they are, supported through all their difficulties, shown that no matter what they can talk to someone without fear. Listen to them. And when they tell you they fear for their futures, look around at the world and ask yourself if you are surprised.
Ask them how they are feeling. What’s going on in their lives. Explore ways to keep them safe through harm minimisation. Get them some help and make sure they know they are loved.