Many of us find it difficult to understand why some people deliberately hurt themselves. Research tells us that about 13% of all young people intentionally self harm during their adolescence.
Most of these kids cut their skin, while others burn themselves with lighters or aerosols, and still others stick themselves with pins or scratch their skin until it bleeds. Kids who self harm tell us they do so for a variety of reasons, but most of these boil down to one primary motivation: to stop horrible thoughts and feelings that seem to be out of control. That is, kids tell us their self harming behaviour is a strategy they use to help themselves feel better. Unfortunately until recently we have not taken the time to listen to these kids and as a result several myths have developed about self harm. The three most common of these are:
Myth 1: Kids self harm to gain attention.
The truth is that only about one third of kids who self harm tell anyone about it. That means two thirds hurt themselves and no-one else knows. Whilst this dispels the myth that for most kids self harm is attention seeking, it highlights the fact that many are experiencing intolerable thoughts and feelings alone and the private act of hurting themselves is the only strategy they have found that helps.
Myth 2: Kids who self harm are mentally ill.
Research has consistently shown that most of those who self harm are not mentally ill. In fact only about one in three kids who self harm have any sort of mental illness, and when this does exist, it is usually depression. But only a small percentage of these kids with depression seek help, which is really sad because these days there are some very effective treatments for depression. And once the depression is treated, often the urge to self harm goes away.
Myth 3: Kids who self harm are suicidal.
The vast majority of kids who self harm do not want to die; they just want the unbearable pain and confusion to stop. Having said that though, we do need to ask kids who are hurting themselves if they are having thoughts about suicide and if they are we need to take them seriously and get them some help. Call us at The LifeWise Centre or school counsellors, Lifeline, Kids Help Line, GPs or local mental health services can help out here.
If we begin by acknowledging that these commonly held beliefs about self harm are for the most part untrue we will be in a better position to come to an understanding of why some kids do engage in this behaviour. We will then be in a better position to think about what we can do to help. Next week we will look in more detail at what kids tell us so we can better understand self harm and the week after we will explore how we can help kids deal with the difficult thoughts and feelings that drive this behaviour.
Contributed by Dr Rob McAlpine, Clinical Psychologist with The LifeWise Centre