Tuesday 27 June 2017

Self-harm: how to hear your troubled teen's cry for help

Every year in Ireland, approximately 12,000 individuals go so far as to end up in hospital as a consequence of deliberate self-harm
Every year in Ireland, approximately 12,000 individuals go so far as to end up in hospital as a consequence of deliberate self-harm

Stella O’Malley

It took previous generations some time before they could accept that addiction and depression weren't simply character flaws but serious mental health issues. Next it was eating disorders that made people raise their eyebrows as they wonder, could this really be a sickness or are these people just attention-seeking neurotics? And then Karen Carpenter died and everyone began taking eating disorders more seriously. Nowadays, it is self-harming behaviour that many people find difficult to understand.

In my work as a psychotherapist, the bewildered parents of self-harming teenagers often ask me, "Why on earth are they doing it? Are they completely mad?" But if we consider that animals in captivity also engage in self-harm, we can begin to understand that this isn't some weird overblown and overindulged phenomenon but a method of coping that incredibly stressed young people turn to when they feel their mind is exploding.

Just like humans, anxiety and social isolation is the main reason why animals self-mutilate; stressed monkeys bite themselves, anxious parrots in captivity pull their feathers out, distressed dogs and cats over-lick themselves ... and many young people cut themselves, scratch themselves and hit themselves.

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