This week the UK media has been full of the disclosure by James O’Shaughnessy (a “health minister”) that hospital admissions of teenage girls for self-harming have nearly doubled over the last 20 years – up from 7,327 in 1997 to 13,463 in 2017; the figures for boys were about static (2,236 in 1997 to 2332 last year).
As you can imagine there were many quotes about the inadequacy of the UK’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAHMS) – and a government spokesperson was quoted as saying that they were putting in an extra £300 million to provide such help in schools. [Yet as a governor of a school myself, I know that that there are many initiatives to ask schools to spot children who are struggling with problems – but the school staff themselves are completely unqualified to provide the support the children need…]
“Heart-breaking,” was how the statistics were described by the charity, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). “These heart-breaking figures are sadly unsurprising. We know from contacts to Childline that many children are being driven to self-harm as a way of dealing with the pressures and demands of modern-day life,” an NSPCC spokesperson said. “Young people are crying out for help and more needs to be done to prevent them from reaching crisis point.” The NSPCC said it gave 15,376 counselling sessions about self-harm last year, the equivalent to 42 per day.
So CAHMS and the admirably proactive NSPCC are struggling to keep up – buy why has there been such a rise?
Well I am pleased to say that the most thoughtful piece in this debate written by Lauren Bell and published in The Sun: https://www.thesun.co.uk/fabulous/6952830/teenage-girls-self-harming-doubled-online-sites-tv-shows-glamourising/
Here Ms Bell highlights the “normalisation” and even the “glamorising” of self-harm: Fashion brands have used models with self-harming scars; and TV shows have made self-harming seem a reasonable choice – almost as if “everyone is doing it”. Worse, some online resources (…Tumblr and Instagram posts) can provide first hand accounts of how self-harming feels – or even secret codes (- sounds exciting) for the sharing harming pictures. One self-harmer has spoken of how a TV “teen soap” was “triggering” for her – as, like the character, she came to see self-harm as an antidote to problems, a way of asserting control or even a method to gain relief for “pain”.
Netflix recently paid for research to show that their programme with a self-harming plot might provoke empathy rather than encouraging girls to self-harm; or to be “triggering”. So TV makers may argue about “triggering” (- being directly responsible for precipitating acts or causing copycat acts etc) – and I am sure their script editors will take measures, and seek out advice, to ensure their output is responsible.
Nevertheless it seems that the “normalisation of self-harm” means that it is seen by many teenage girls as “an option”– and the availability on the internet of “how to” information, plus the self-representation to be gained by sharing such thoughts or even pictures, seems to be supporting the rise in figures.
I think we have to acknowledged that web services that allow the promotion of self-harming – the sharing of justifications, of “how to guidance” and even testaments or photographs should be irradiated. Similarly advertising should avoid the promotion of self-harm.
Yet, the figures cause me to believe that responsible programme makers of material aimed at teens have a real dilemma – as even with even best intentions, plotlines involving self-harming can suggest that the behaviour is commonplace… and for some, a normal response to the pressures of life. The usual reason for running such plots is that they help to gain understanding for those involved… and these plots often introduce the issue to a wider audience who may not be aware of the issue. However, these plots can also normalise the behaviour and even encourage interest from teen girls seeking ways to gain control in their lives or to redirect themselves from other painful issues. I think we have to be more concerned with the reduction of self-harming rather than providing community support for harmers. It seems that even educating teens about the dangers of self-harming… or where they might seek help… can be counterproductive! Support for harmers must come from the government funded services (which must improve) – the rest of us should work on reducing the problem.