The BBC reported earlier this week that calls to ChildLine about self-harm had risen by 68% compared to last year, and this is a statistic that should alarm us. Most of the calls were from girls, and the age of many of the callers on this subject had dropped: self-harm has now become a leading issue amongst 14-year olds. All of this points to what Sue Minto, Head of ChildLine concluded: “It seems the pressures facing children and young people – particularly girls – are increasing at such a rate that some of them see these drastic measures as the only answer to their problems.”
Self-harm is an entirely alien concept to many parents, who find it almost inconceivable to think that their children might be taking a sharp object to a part of their body and physically harming themselves. It is, however, a very real – and a very worrying – phenomenon. Contrary to many of the myths that circulate about self-harm, this process is not usually about seeking attention. It is usually done in secret, and while it is a cry for help – a kind of primal scream that says that a child is not coping with the pressures she or he is facing – it is a silent cry, as the child cannot work out how to communicate the overwhelming nature of the feelings, thoughts and emotions that are pressing down and suffocating their power of reason and their ability to cope with life.
Life now is harder than ever before for our young people. Modern technology has brought a barrage of information, opinions and pressures, and the almost impossibly quantifiable nature of these means that young people can struggle to see a framework and structure within which to order their understanding of the world. Society often appears to be operating in a moral vacuum; even if young people hear strong moral voices from home and from school, these can be so at odds with what they see around them that they can become powerfully confused. Young people are bombarded, relentlessly, with contradictory messages that often attack the core of their being. It is little wonder that they can find it hard to cope.
If children – or adults, for that matter – self-harm, they need proper, supervised, psychological support. They have suppressed a protective inner barrier, and broken a human taboo, straying towards self-destruction rather than the drive towards self-preservation which keeps us all intact. They need help to resurrect this barrier and re-form around them the buffers and cushions that protect us all from the pain of raw exposure. With help, they will be able to do this and will become stronger and more resilient as a result.
But before it gets this far, families and schools – and all of us – can and should do something else: we need to build the resilience of our young people. We need to tell them, loud and clear, and again and again, that they have the capacity to make their own way in the world, that if they believe they can, they will, that they do not have to do it all, and they certainly do not have to do it now. They need to hear us say that they have the power within them to rise above the noise of society and identify what really matters – to shed the dross and concentrate on the strong values that unite us all. They need to hear that we are with them, and that we are there for them, even as they carve out their own unique path. We need to allow them to develop their own resilience and their own wisdom.
When we do all of this, our young people will be well-prepared for life in this imperfect society of ours.