Self harming used to be a pretty rare and isolated symptom of more serious psychological pain, however today it is reaching epidemic levels amongst our young girls aged 11-14. Our Founder Jane Kenyon reviews the evidence……

It is estimated by mental health professionals 1 in 4 girls will self harm before they leave school and hospital admissions in England are at a 5 year high for girls aged 10-14 showing a 93% increase.

Wow! What is going on????

Now before I begin let me say I do not have all the answers. I am simply pulling on my experience of working with teenage girls for the past 6 years. I am very keen to hear from others and parents who also have experience as I firmly believe strength comes from unity.

First, let’s be clear what we mean by self harm – it is not just cutting with fingernails, razor or even a biro (yes, I have seen this) it is also biting, skin peeling, pinching, picking and scratching, burning, head banging, bone breaking and pulling your hair out. Girls talk about hurting themselves as a way of giving them some sort of release from emotional pain, self loathing, anger, stress, depression, loneliness, inability to fit in, or an overwhelming feeling of being unloved or not enough.

And if their reasons fit any of the above then this should trigger the need for support and attention, however, alongside this serious mental health issue, self harming has a dark side fuelled by social media and the internet which has turned a cry for help from vulnerable girls into a trend.

self harm blog

Nowhere was this more apparent than the departure of Zayn Malik from boy band One Direction a few weeks ago when #cut4Zayn instantly started trending with over 4600 tweets per minute encouraging young girls and boys to self harm and post pictures – ‘cut and show’ If you have a strong stomach I dare you to check out the hashtag to get an idea of the scale of this phenomenon and this is not the first campaign #cut4Bieber went before.

Girls can subscribe to thousands of blogs, websites and communities telling them how to self harm, positively encouraging them to join in and this may be OK if you are emotionally stable and can differentiate the game from reality but if you are in the least bit vulnerable this is an invitation to a darker side and many girls become addicted to self harming through this route.

So how did we get here? Every generation finds a way to rebel, to scream, to fight against the system, to stand out to be different or to hide. We call this teen angst. My concern is that every year the habits of teenagers get more and more dangerous with the help of the internet, porn, game culture, a sick media and social networking and we as adults become more and more removed from what is really going on as we simply write this off as ’growing up’ or ‘oh it’s that internet thing, she/he will grow out of it.’

We all remember the trials of puberty but and it’s a big BUT, our experience is in no way reflective or the same as theirs. The angst has been magnified beyond our comprehension. Even for a 30 year old their world is often unfathomable. Think about these as examples…

Sexual discovery Few top shelf porn mags, few gropes behind bike shed, formal sex ed at school, a couple of TV programmes with the odd nudity and very tame sex scenes., info from siblings and friends. Average age of first sexual encounter 17. Teen pregnancies rare. No access to Xrated media Mainstream hardcore porn everywhere, sex ed way behind on reality, rape culture, reality TV, social media documenting your every move, grooming and growing sexual harassment, teen pregnancy rate highest in Europe, STD’s common place, average age of first sexual encounter 14.
Identity shaping – need to rebel and find self Listening to anti establishment music (punk, heavy metal, MOD etc), staying out after curfew, smoking without inhaling to look cool, the odd can of cider, rebelling against views of parents, sulking or withdrawing to room with no mobile phone, no TV, no internet, maybe a radio. Tattoos and body piercings, extreme personality/identity shifts, not just about the clothes, it’s a way of life, drug use, binge drinking, extreme sexual promiscuity, withdrawing and finding solace on social media.

Do you see the shifts? They are huge and yet we are failing to understand this and put in the necessary support mechanisms to stay close to them, listen to them and guide them. This change is not incremental it represents a massive leap and we have to recognise this in order to manage it.

I think self harming is one of those shifts. I do not profess to understand it but as a teen advocate I do see a lot of it and in most cases the best way through it is to talk. Most young people need to be seen, to be heard and to know that what they say matters. We can only help them find their voice by keeping the channels of communication wide open at all times and I wonder if we do this enough?

So we need to acknowledge that their world is different, take mental health issues like self harming, depression and anxiety seriously, campaign for better mental health services, become social media monitors and stay close and watch for any worrying signs as they attempt to navigate the challenging landscape of their early teenage years.

Self harming is a destructive addiction that can leave scars way beyond teenage years. Our girls are screaming at us, but are we listening?

For more information on self harming and other mental health issues we found this fab web resource