The Self-Harm Epidemic: How Young People Cope with Stress

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Anxiety Tips, Education News, Tips for Parents
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Mentor Education

With 70,000 incidents of self-harm reported in secondary schools in the last year, it appears that more and more teenagers are turning to self-injury as a way to battle stress, depression and anxiety.

In a recent article for the Daily Mail, child psychotherapist Louis Weinstock tackled this worrying escalation – and the reasons behind it. ‘These figures are shocking,’ he states. ‘Yet they show how more and more young people – typically adolescents, and three times more girls than boys – are turning to self-harm as a coping mechanism.’

What is self-harm – and why is this practice on the increase?

Self-harm is a loose term, which can cover many types of self-injury: from the cutting or burning of one’s body, to self-poisoning, hair-pulling, and head-banging. And the number of children and young people committing such actions is rising sharply, as evidenced by recent figures from NHS Digital. Between 2005 – 2015, the number of under-18 girls needing hospital treatment after poisoning themselves rose by 42%; more worrying still, the number of girls treated after cutting themselves quadrupled during that time. ‘Dangerous though it is, [self-harm] can bring a sense of relief or control to a situation (internal or external) that feels confusing, overwhelming and beyond control,’ Weinstock explains.

What are the reasons behind this concerning trend? Is it merely the pressures of 21st-century life, or something more insidious? In Louis Weinstock’s expert view – having worked with a number of clients whose self-harming journey coincided with the commencement of major exams – the current education system isn’t helping. ‘Young people feel pressure to succeed at a young age, from their families and from the education system, which is still based on the Industrial-era factory model’ he comments. In addition, there is the system’s focus on ‘teaching things that can be measured and tested’, which only piles on the pressure. There’s also been a noted increase in adolescent cases of depression in recent years, with studies showing that one in ten boys aged 14, and one in four girls, are depressed.

Certainly, the wealth of current research goes some way toward dismissing the prevailing – and harmful – notion that self-harming is a form of attention-seeking. As Weinstock points out, several of his young clients engage in self-harming to deal with emotional distress: the death of a parent, perhaps, or family arguments. He cites the psychiatrist Armando Favazza, who ‘describes self-harm as a “morbid form of self-help”’, and the studies that ‘confirm’ her view: ‘the main reason people report engaging in self-harm is to reduce emotional distress. Another common reason is self-punishment, although either motivation can lead to a temporary sense of relief.’ But what can we do to help?

How can parents help?

If you are concerned about your son or daughter, and want reassurance as to the best way to support them – should they be at risk of self-harming – experienced psychotherapist Louis Weinstock has shared some of his top tips.

Below are the key warning signs – and what to do next:

  1. Pay attention. It’s easy at times to label a teenager’s behaviour as ‘hormonal’, but do look out for any signs of distress, particularly if your child is withdrawing into themselves.
  2. Check in – and listen. Mention to your child that they seem more upset and so you’re just checking in. Lend them an ear and be curious. If they aren’t keen on talking in a face-to-face manner, offer to text or email in case that is easier for them.
  3. Remain calm.It’s crucial that parents create a ‘safe space’ for these discussions, Weinstock cautions. ‘Young people are secretive about their self-harm as they fear their parents’ anger and punishment.’ For parents, he advises the following approach: ‘Say, “I’m so sorry to hear how much pain you are in. I’m here for you if you want to talk.” Don’t bombard them with questions.’
  4. Validate. As Weinstock explains, ‘Having our feelings validated helps us to feel anchored. When someone tries to fix us, it can make us feel as though our feelings aren’t valid.’ Parents should therefore seek to validate the emotions that they witness in their children, using language like: ‘It seems like you are really angry with me. I’m sorry about that.’
  5. Triggers. Together with your child, talk through and write down some of the triggers that cause the urge to self-harm.
  6. Alternatives. Again, together with your child, think of alternative ways to cope with stress and other strong feelings. Weinstock suggests that flicking a rubber band or using an ice cube can be helpful at this point. Once you’ve complete this activity, tackle ways to reduce the risk with your child by discussing the possibility of removing the mechanisms (the blades used for cutting, for instance).
  7. Get help. Don’t be afraid to seek help if you’re concerned about your child. You can speak to friends, family, or a professional – your GP can provide a referral, you can seek help from private sources, or you can locate resources online (via samaritans.org, youngminds.org.uk, childline.org.uk and by reading healthtalk.org’s self-harm guide).
  8. Consider setting internet guidelines. Over-exposure to online forums – such as social media –may contribute heavily to the spread of emotions leading to self-harm. Weinstock posits that ‘emotional contagion is at work here’ due to the fact that ‘over a third of 15-year-olds in the UK are “extreme internet users”, online for at least six hours a day at the weekend.’With this in mind, consider setting healthy internet boundaries with your child – no internet in the bedroom, perhaps.
  9. Love. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Weinstock concludes that‘all children need to know that they are loved, regardless of how well they do in their exams or how many likes they get on Instagram.’ As a parent, he urges that you ‘show your love by being fully present with [your child] at least once a day, with no devices and no distractions.’

 Coping with self-harm – advice from Louis Weinstock:

Louis Weinstock is a psychotherapist, coach and meditation teacher who specialises in working with children and families. For more information, visit louisweinstock.com.

 

All quotations and citations, unless otherwise indicated, have been reproduced with the kind permission of Louis Weinstock.

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