Last week we discovered that about one in eight young people self harm at some time during their adolescent years and that most of these kids don’t tell anyone about this behaviour.
Further, most of these kids do not have a mental illness and most of them don’t have suicide on their mind, they just want their intolerable thoughts and feelings to stop. In other words, most of these young people are normal adolescents who have not yet discovered other strategies to deal with unbearable stress.
But how does self harm help these young people deal with difficult thoughts and feelings?
Some young people tell us that the physical pain associated with self harm distracts, even for a short time, from the psychological pain that goes with lots of stress:
“It’s like when I cut, it’s real pain that makes the hidden pain easier to cope with” Michele
For others self harm is a cry for help:
“You have so much pain inside yourself that you try and hurt yourself on the outside because you want help” Diana, Princess of Wales.
Some find self harm offers general relief from distress:
I don’t feel the pain until the next day. I’m not sure what I feel when I cut, but it makes me feel relieved.” Ethan
Some young people describe an emotional numbness that makes them feel “dead inside”. Trent Resnor, singer/songwriter from Nine Inch Nails, wrote:
“I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain,
The only thing that’s real”
There are many reasons why young people hurt themselves, but they all represent a need to seek relief from extremely troubling thoughts and feelings.
Self harm isn’t an illness but it is a sign of underlying distress. Young people who self harm want things to be better but have not yet developed strategies that work for them. Our role is not to over-react with shock and horror, nor is it to condone the self harm but to keep the lines of communication open with the goal of helping our young people develop other ways to deal with the stresses of life that work and are acceptable to them.
If you are concerned about a young person who is self harming or you are a young person who wants help, call us at The LifeWise Centre or school counsellors, LifeLine, Kids Help Line, your GP or the local adolescent mental health service will be able to offer help.
Contributed by Dr Rob McAlpine, Clinical Psychologist with The LifeWise Centre