DSH, or Deliberate Self-Harm is probably one of the trickiest of mental health issues for adults to comprehend. In school, it’s not a shock to us – although we don’t regard it by any means as “normal” behaviour, we do see it frequently enough for it to have lost its shock value. However, if you are a parent who has just discovered or been told that their child is self-harming, you will probably be very shocked indeed. Anger, guilt, bafflement, disbelief – all these are normal responses from a parent faced with the fact that their child has deliberately harmed herself. Adults will frequently voice the belief that this is a new, modern type of behaviour, it didn’t exist in the old days, or that it’s copycat behaviour, it’s somehow become the accepted and expected thing to do amongst teenagers – girls in particular. There is a temptation to see DSH as attention seeking, or, at the other extreme, a precursor to suicidal thoughts and behaviour.
In school, we deal with the issue of DSH openly with year groups where we feel it’s appropriate. Matron Claire Joffe and I have a “double act” which we present to students as and when we feel it’s needed, talking frankly to the girls about what self-harm is, the reasons why young people might do it and looking at less destructive practices that recovered self-harmers use as alternatives. We make information available to girls in our “Wellbeing” section of the library and also on Student Read, part of the school’s ICT facility that the girls have access to. Research suggests that bringing DSH into the open, discussing and demystifying it, can have real benefits: it robs the practice of its mystique and opens the door for young people or their friends to talk to us about it.
Having said that, we are well aware that a number of young people continue to self-harm, either secretly or with the knowledge of some of their friends. The information and links I have included in this part of our Wellbeing and Mental Health section of the website are ones which I have found useful and informative. As ever, if you have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to contact us at school. If you are worried about your daughter’s health or wellbeing, we would always advise that you see your GP, who may want to discuss a CAMHS* referral.
*Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service.
www.selfharm.co.uk especially the Info section on the Home Page
Leaflet from Royal College of Psychiatrists (in Related Information)
It is very distressing to find out that someone you care about is self-harming. Feelings of shock, confusion, guilt or even anger are common - not surprisingly, given the upsetting emotions this kind of behaviour exposes.
Young people often sense that these are likely to be their parents' reactions, so they hide what they're up to, so as not to distress. The silence is a sign that they feel ashamed - so it's really important to be as compassionate and non-judgmental as possible. It's hard if you are feeling shaken or alarmed so take the time to settle yourself.
Self-harming happens for a range of reasons, most commonly as a way of managing high levels of distress or difficult feelings. But it can also be an attempt to communicate unhappiness. Take the time to ask questions and find out what is fueling the behaviour.
That said, asking too many questions can backfire, so judge how much you can probe by thinking about your relationship with your child.
Most people find it scary to ask about suicidal thoughts but it doesn’t put ideas into people's heads. You can ask whether your child has thoughts about wanting to die; it's important to assess how risky the situation might be.
You should also try to ask your child about their mood, confidence, anxiety, whether they're eating and what they're doing online. Most advice suggests that it is important to work towards open communication about online activity rather than attempting to control it. You may, though, want to make recommendations!
In fact, many young people find their own solutions to distress and self-harm, with the help of friends, teachers or school counsellors. If you think the risk of harm is high or there are significant mental health problems such as depression or an anxiety disorder, then you may want to ask your GP for a referral to a child and adolescent mental health service.
There are no right ways to help with self-harm, no easy answers. But a few things do seem to be important: