When Frankie, then aged 11, spoke to us about a friend who had revealed she was thinking about self-harming, we were suddenly catapaulted into a world we hoped we wouldn’t have to face personally. This is a sombre blog post, but we think it is so important and so topical, we couldn’t ignore this issue.
Self-harm is sadly a reality for a lot of young people, and professionally as a psychologist, I come across this all too frequently. I am trained in how to talk about it and have a relatively stock set of questions and recommendations to assess and manage risk with the young person. But I still felt thrown by this coming to me when I was wearing my ‘auntie hat’ rather than my ‘psychologist hat’. Rachel, Frankie’s mum, started googling for places she could recommend to Frankie’s friend, but also, advice we could give Frankie. And we realised there was a problem with much of it. Sure, there are loads of hits if you google ‘self-harm’, and many from very sensible reputable organisations. But most of them start with a warning along the lines of “This contains triggers. Do not read on if it might make you self-harm”. Or, they have advice that is, frankly, a bit lame if you have already headed down the road and have started hurting yourself.
The videos, blogs and advice that aren’t from reputable organisations are often ‘how to’ videos, many glamorizing self-harm, giving tips on how to do it or how to cover it up. Or, they are “I used to self-harm but now I have stopped” videos, young people sharing images of their own scars, their stories and experiences. And whilst these latter may be cathartic, even therapeutic for the young person who made them, they almost always contain images of self-harm or at least past scars, all potentially triggering for a young person currently experiencing despair with thoughts about hurting themselves. I was surprised how hard it was to find a safe, reliable resource that didn’t have any trigger words or images but contained practical advice.
"This thoughtful and accessible film offers young people down-to-earth and compassionate advice for when they feel like self-harming. It's memorable, psychologically sound and meets a real need for resources like this. So helpful that it's here at last!" Dr Lydia Vella, Clinical Psychologist, Children's Services Oxfordshire County Council.
That was what prompted us to make our own. It has taken us time to create something, but Frankie’s artwork and effort are instrumental in creating something that I hope will be meaningful and helpful. It is clearly very ‘low-fi’ and I am sure there are people out there who could do this better. And I would encourage them to please do so! Self-harm has become a particularly current topic in recent weeks, with the terribly sad news about Molly Russell’s death possibly having been in some way influenced or encouraged by the images she was viewing online. We welcome news from Instagram today that they are going to remove explicit images of self-harm from their platform, and we hope that other social media providers do the same. But what we need is social media to be flooded with alternatives. With messages of hope, encouragement, support. With practical advice to help understand what may be happening for a young person, why they may be getting urges to hurt themselves, why hurting themselves may actually bring momentary relief, but why that relief isn’t going to last and how they can make an alternative choice to deal with whatever difficult feelings they are experiencing. This video is our contribution, our small drop in what we hope will become a flood of alternative, accessible material.
We also created a 5-step guide for anyone hearing that a young person is considering or has already hurt themselves. Because being that person is incredibly anxiety provoking and can feel like a huge responsibility. Shame never helps people handle difficult emotions, so this is not about inducing shame, ever. It is about acknowledging how rubbish a young person may be feeling, being alongside them but being able to tell them that don’t have to hurt themselves and there are alternatives.
We hope these resources help someone. And we also hope that they inspire other people to use good, evidence-based principles, to create even better resources than ours. There is a huge need, but there are also a huge number of amazing, creative young people out there and we would challenge them to join us and flood social media with sensible, safe reliable resources.
Dr Helen Care at aconfidentstart.com