As reported in yesterday’s Guardian, a WHO study (to be published in full later this year) reports that the number of teenagers in England who self-harm has trebled in the last ten years, and is now around one in five. Self-harm – cutting, burning or otherwise harming oneself – is a sign of intense mental turmoil. We are faced with a deeply concerning question – why is this happening?
Young people have multiple pressures on them, and all the evidence demonstrates that these pressures are growing. Quite apart from the pressures placed on them by adolescence – that period of hormonal, mental and emotional explosion – young people are faced on a daily basis by messages about money, lifestyle, appearance and exam success which can leave them feeling inadequate and unable to cope with the sense of living a life which will never attain the images of perfection perpetuated by TV, the media, and the online world of celebrity gossip. In a world which seems out of control, self-harm is a way to bring control, albeit in a destructive and psychologically disturbing fashion.
If we can understand the significance of these pressures to which our young people are subjected, however, we can prepare ourselves to take the next steps, namely to help do something about it. An understanding of what leads to self-harm opens the way to teach young people strategies to cope with the world; love, care, time spent with them reiterating messages that counter the negative messages that they hear – all of these are ways in which we can help them.
Equally, however, an awareness and understanding of self-harm should prompt us forcefully to take a hard look at the pressures our society places on its youngest generations. When will we stop communicating that unless they achieve reams of A*s they will have failed? When will we stop foisting airbrushed photos of impossible and twisted ‘beauty’ upon them? When will we stop drooling over the minutiae of celebrity lives?
Do not underestimate what an individual can do in this respect. Resolve today to do something to reject these pressures – refuse to buy a magazine which perpetuates myths of perfect, turn off the television, or talk to a young person about what really, realy matters in life. Each of us can make a difference. Do it.