Self-harming: Feeling the pain
It's hard to accept that one's own child could deliberately hurt themselves, but self- harming is most prevalent among young people, with peer pressure often being a factor. Bernice Mulligan reports
" THE important thing to remember is that people who self-harm don't want to kill themselves, they are expressing emotional pain," says Melanie McGuirk of Self Harm Ireland, an organisation she set up to provide information and counselling to people who self-harm and their families.
"Self-harming is defined as deliberately harming yourself, and this can come about in many different ways," she explains.
"Some people cut themselves, others will burn their skin with cigarettes, break bones deliberately, scratch their skin, pull their hair out, remove their nails or eyelashes or abuse drink and drugs."
But why would anyone, let alone a young person, infl ict such terrible pain on themselves?
"There are a lot of reasons, and it's different for every person," explains McGuirk.
"Basically it's about expressing emotions. People who self-harm tend to be bad communicators; by hurting themselves they're letting you see their pain on the outside.
"Although, having said that, there is also a huge amount of secrecy, shame and self-loathing attached to self-harming.
"It can also be linked to bullying or abuse or going through a very traumatic event," says McGuirk. "Some people can feel numb to the world and this is their way of feeling something, even if it is pain."
The trouble with self-harming, McGuirk explains, is that it can become addictive.
" The physical pain can act as a distraction from severe emotional turmoil. It's about a transference of pain from within to without."
According to the Irish Association of Suicidology, it is estimated that 70,000 people in Ireland selfharmed last year, and, as McGuirk points out, there are probably many more.
She explains that self-harming is spread fairly evenly between the sexes, and tends to primarily affect people aged between 15 and 25, although McGuirk has seen it in younger people.
" The youngest person we dealt with here in our drop-in centre in Donegal was just 10 years old. It's desperately sad but unfortunately it's becoming more and more prevalent."
While some children will gravitate towards selfharming of their own accord, others may be pressurised into it, she says.
"There's a craze among teenagers at the moment called 'scarification', which involves getting ' branded' by their friends. It involves placing a very hot object on the skin to mark or brand it. Unfortunately, some tattoo parlours also do it, which is extremely worrying."
So how, as a parent, does one deal with this? Says McGuirk: " Well, even if there is no evidence that your child is self-harming, but maybe you've heard about scarification rituals in their school, there is certainly no harm opening up a conversation around the issue. Nobody has started to self-harm just because they talked about it."
There is, however, the issue that if a parent tells a child not to do something, it can often have the opposite effect. So how does a parent prevent a child from going down the road of scarification or self-mutilation?
" I would sit down with them and talk them through it. Point out that if these people are really your friends they'll accept you as you are without asking you to harm your body. What you want to do is build up your child's self-esteem to the point where they're able to say no."
And what if you discover that your child is selfharming, either in secret or because of peer pressure?
" Firstly, don't be afraid to talk to your child openly about it. I know some parents react so badly that they immediately place their child in a psychiatric unit, but this is not helpful. You want to be respectful to your child and not make them feel like they're weird or strange."
McGuirk also advises reading up on the subject and finding out what it means so they can have some understanding of what the child is going through.
" You need to support positive steps, which may involve going to counselling or to a GP. You probably will encounter negativity at the start and your child will resist your efforts to help them but, eventually, with enough support, they will listen to you because ultimately most people want to stop self-harming and get better."
She admits that many parents have huge issues around the fact that their child is deliberately hurting themselves.
" Yes, it is horrible to think your child would do this, but the only way to deal with it is by loving and supporting them and by treating them normally. Take up a healthy activity with them; include them in all family occasions. Once it's out there, then you can take steps to deal with it."
McGuirk says timelines for recovery vary. "It can take a year; it can take longer. It's all about finding alternatives to self-injury as a way of coping with emotional diffi culties. And it is also about reminding your child that even if they self-harm they are still a good and worthwhile person."
Mother & Babies