There are some stories you read that are bound to affect you more than others. One such news story caught my attention yesterday and it was that a fifth of 14-year old girls in the UK have self-harmed within the past year. I wan’t necessarily shocked at this figure but just upset at the prospect of a continuing upward trend.
Later on, I watched an item on Channel 4 news discussing the new data and I was struck by something one of the guests – Natasha Devon, a mental health campaigner – said about what the concept of self-harm actually means. She explained that ‘self-harm is defined as any activity which we know harms us either physically or emotionally but gives us temporary respite from difficult times’ and went on to say that in that regard, smoking a cigarette, having a glass of wine or eating a do-nut could all then be examples of self-harm. The distinction of what is being discussed in the media at the moment is that thousands of young girls (and boys, although the number of recorded cases is much lower) are actually inflicting physical self-injuries.
It’s an attempt to cope with any number of problems that might be going on in the back ground. These tend to include body image issues, pressure at school, bullying, emotional abuse and grieving. These aren’t new problems for children but many have been intensified with the advent of social media in particular. I’d like to revisit the point that Natasha Devon made about self-harm not just being about inflicting a physical injury as a means of temporary escape. We as adults, actively seek out ways in which to numb our emotional woes, whether that’s at the bottom of a bottle of gin, a reckless spending spree courtesy of your credit card or even a night spent with someone whom we know is bad for us. Adults are often not much better than teenagers at dealing with the stresses of their own lives, we’ve just invented and have access to different escape routes.
There is a thread that runs through a lot of the research on the young people who self-harm, and it’s all very dependent on their home life and the people they have around them. If only for a moment, try to imagine being 14 again and going through a problematic time. If like me, you had a solid support network of family and friends, those issues while emotionally draining and difficult, were compartmentalised into one single issue – so just imagine having to go through it without that safety net.
When my parents split up when I was 10, I never had to question whether they still loved me, I also didn’t have to worry about being bullied when I went into school the following day or having no one to talk to about how I felt.
And if I think back to when I was 14, this was when my mum died. To this day it is still the hardest and most traumatic thing I have ever been through. The support I had around me throughout the whole time was immeasurable. Despite this, there were moments when I felt myself retreating and looking for ways to ease the immense pain I was feeling. I didn’t know how to process emotions of such magnitude, I was still a child and all I wanted was to be with my Mum again. However, all my dark moments kept being infiltrated and ultimately banished with the light of the family and friends and most of all, with the love and strength my mum had instilled in me during my short time with her.
My heart truly breaks for the young people who through no fault of their own, don’t have the same kind of support network around them that I have always had. How can we expect children to cope with issues of grief, bullying or academic stress without some level of counsel and love to guide them? Adults barely manage as it is.
It’s not always possible to garner the support necessary for a child by depending on their parents or guardians. In some cases those relationships need to be created through social workers, counsellors, teachers and even the media to some extent. I think back to when I was in my first year of high school and we had a group of 6th year students known as ‘buddies’ whose job it was to show us the ropes in our first few months. My friends and I bonded with a few of them, we thought they were the coolest people ever and we always wanted to know where they got their clothes and jewellery from and who they might be dating. When I got to 6th year, I took on the buddy role myself and found the same thing happened with the girls in my class. I don’t think I’ve ever had so many compliments in a 20 minute period since.
So why am I mentioning this little scheme? There is an opportunity here for older teens to help their younger peers. In many ways they wield much more power than the adults who, in the eyes of many kids, are obviously ancient and know nothing about modern teenage strife. Why not schedule one of those registration mornings to be a Q & A time so that everyone can get involved? (my friends and I most certainly monopolised our buddies’ time) Or ask the buddies to give mini presentations on particular topics like body issues, school stress and social media? They could engage with teachers for help and work together to create mini lessons that the younger students will actually be excited about. The added benefits to the older teens of giving them increased responsibility in a mentoring role would be boundless.
The full weight of raising, caring and supporting a child shouldn’t lie solely on the shoulders of the parents or teachers. We need to look for more opportunities and ways in which we can build up children right from the start so that when the shitty times come, which they will, they know they’re not facing it alone.
We owe that to each and every young person.