March 1st is self-harm and self-injury awareness day. At PAPYRUS, our advisers speak to many young people who are struggling with self-harm or self-injury. Self-harm and suicidal thoughts do not always come hand in hand, though there is an increased risk of suicidal thoughts in those who self-harm.
These past 12 months have been challenging for many – a year of change and uncertainty. HOPELINEUK has continued to support young people under 35 to stay safe from suicide. Young Minds report that 1 in 12 young people self-harm and that 75% of young people know someone who self-harms. Whilst the pandemic means we have seen some changes in key themes brought to us by the young people we speak to, self-harm has consistently remained one of these.
This year, we chatted with Si Martin from Heads Above the Waves, the organisation that supports young people with their mental health, in particular self harm. Si helped us understand a little more about self-harm, how to get support, shared his advice and what it means to look after yourself.
Hi Si! Thanks for much for chatting with us for self-harm awareness day 2021. We have some questions for you so let’s get started…
First of all, tell us about Heads Above the Waves…
Heads Above the Waves (HATW) is an not-for-profit organisation that supports young people struggling with their mental health, in particular self-harm. We aim to provide young people with creative and positive ways to get through the bad days. We share experiences, advice and ideas of ways to help manage self-harm via our website and social media platforms. HATW was created based on the personal experiences of its founders; aiming to offer the support we would have wanted or needed when we were younger. We’re based in Cardiff and have a shop there, selling merch with a message to help start conversations and tackle the stigma surrounding self-harm (Merch also available online). We offer workshops in schools and are currently working on the development of digital workshops.
That’s really useful to know. We’re big fans of a safety plan here at PAPYRUS and can see you guys offer a self-harm safety plan too.
So, for anyone who may be unfamiliar with the term, what is self-harm?
Self-harm is behaviour that is harmful to yourself. It is usually defined as intentional injury to self or self-poisoning. Self-harm can include restriction of food; drug and alcohol abuse; and intentionally putting yourself into risky situations. These behaviours have similar underlying thought processes. Essentially, self-harm can be understood as the opposite of looking after yourself.
That’s a really helpful way of putting it, thank you for sharing that. Who self-harms?
Literally anyone may self-harm. It can affect any one of any age. Any one at any time of their life might find themselves in a difficult situation or going through a hard time. If you don’t have healthy ways of managing those times or situations, that’s when someone may fall into unhealthy coping strategies, such as self-harm.
Why do people self-harm?
Self-harm is unique to everyone. It’s not a “one size fits all”. For some it may be a lack of control where there are areas of their life that feel out of their control and self-harm can help them regain a sense of control. For others it may be a form of expression. Harming themselves as a way of externally expressing their internal pain. Young people may self-harm due to a lack of self-worth. It can act as a form of self-punishment. They may not feel valuable or like they are worth taking care of. Self-harm can help alleviate emotional numbness, to regain a sense of feeling. Self-harm can also act as a form of showing you need attention. It can be an indicator that there is something else going on in that person’s life that means self-harm is a way of gaining the attention they need as they may struggle to communicate in others ways. These are examples of the understanding we have from our work with young people. There is no exhaustive list and there can be other reasons someone may self-harm.
Absolutely. It’s important to remember that whatever someone’s experience may be, it’s valid. We may not always understand why, but that’s ok. One of the myths surrounding suicide is that talking about it openly can increase the risk. We know that talking openly about suicide sensitively and appropriately can tackle the stigma and save lives.
What is a myth about self-harm and how would you debunk this myth?
There is a myth that self-harm is the problem. This is not the case. Self-harm is a reaction to a problem that becomes problematic. We need to focus less on what the self-harm is and more on why the self-harm is happening. If we can be aware that self-harm is a reaction to a problem and work to find out what that problem is, we can seek support to manage that and help aid someone’s recovery from self-harm.
How can a young person get support with self-harm?
It’s important to feel ready to accept and engage with the support that is available to you. It’s ok if this takes time – there is no pressure. Just know that there is support out there that has helped others and can help you too when you are ready.
Speak with people in your life about the things that are going on for you. There are helplines and services that can offer you a safe and confidential space if needed. Your GP can help you access counselling and therapy. Support groups can help you meet other people who are experiencing similar things and connecting in these ways can help you feel less alone.
In Cardiff there is a service called the Amber Project. They offer counselling, workshops and informal support to young people with experience of self-harm.
A great way to find services and groups in your area like this is via hubofhope.co.uk
That’s really useful to know. What advice would you give to young people struggling with self-harm?
You matter. It may feel like this is how things are and how it is going to be, but things can get better. You are worth taking care of, you’re worthy of help and support. Be your own mental health champion. You are unique. You bring something to the world that no one else in the universe can bring because you are you and you are the only you there is.
That’s really powerful. On our helpline, HOPELINEUK, we also talk to those who are concerned about or supporting someone. What advice would you give to those supporting someone struggling with self-harm?
Listen. Some people worry about what to say – you don’t need to say anything. Master listening non-judgementally and actively hearing what that person is saying to you rather that getting stuck on the self-harm. Focus on what is being said around that.
Some great nuggets of advice there. Last but not least, let’s talk about self-care. Self-care is so important. How do you like to look after yourself?
Self-care isn’t always pretty. It can be taking care of your most basic human needs – eating, drinking, keeping warm. It doesn’t always have to be Instagram worthy. Self-care is more effective when you are doing it consciously to take care of yourself. Take walking for example, walking from A to B may seem mundane, but when we make a conscious effort to go for a walk to get space and fresh air, it feels so much more beneficial.
I like to play drums and video games. I might do this to fill a few hours on a Sunday when I’m bored. But when I’ve had a challenging day and I need to switch off for a little while and find headspace and I make a conscious effort to do that, that’s when it becomes self-care.
Absolutely. Self-care isn’t selfish, it’s necessary.
Thank you so much for sitting down with us, Si.
Sometimes, when young people have experience of self-harm, they also have thoughts about suicide. If you or a young person you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, you can contact HOPELINEUK:
Call: 0800 068 4141
Text: 07860 039 967
9am – midnight every day.
Heads Above the Waves – advice and resources for managing self-harm.
Self-injury support – support for women and girls with experience of self-harm.
Alumnia – free online support programme for 14-19 year olds struggling with self-harm and wanting to move towards recovery.
Calm Harm – Calm Harm is an app designed to help people resist or manage the urge to self-harm.
Young Minds – help and advice for teenagers to manage their mental well-being. Also offers a Parent’s helpline.
LifeSIGNS – user-led small charity creating understanding about self-injury.
Hub of Hope – mental health database to help you find services and support groups local to you.