Wednesday 16 October 2019

'Children as young as four are self-harming - we can't turn a blind eye to mental health'

Stella O’Malley is a psychotherapist, public speaker and author. Much of her counselling and teaching work is with parents and young people

(Stock image)
(Stock image)
Stella O'Malley

Stella O'Malley

WHEN I first read about children as young as four presenting with mental health difficulties, such as self-harming behaviour and anxiety, I sighed heavily. Have we really come to this? I wondered.

Four year olds self-harming? Is this yet another moral panic designed, for the most part, to buy our attention or is the world gone to hell entirely?

This DCU study surveyed more than 1,000 principals and the findings report that significant numbers of primary-school children are experiencing emotional difficulties such as anxiety and depression. Many people, of course, will dismiss this as do-gooders taking children’s little problems too seriously.

Yet with one-in-four Irish adults experiencing mental health issues, with our youth suicide rates among the highest in Europe and with a global statistic of a person dying by suicide every 40 seconds, perhaps it’s high time we began to take emotional health seriously.

According to the report, the teachers aren’t equipped to adequately respond to students in distress. Dr Rosaleen McElvaney, who compiled the report, pointed to studies in the UK that suggest society would benefit if troubled children could avail of counselling.

“For every £1 spent on one-to-one counselling at primary school level, it’s a return to society of over £6 in the longer term, in terms of better job prospects, criminality, so very much at that preventative level.”

When emotional problems begin to have an impact, children – and adults – develop coping mechanisms to relieve the tension.

These coping mechanisms can be healthy or unhealthy and their main aim is to give relief from the pain. Self-harming is often described as a coping mechanism that is used as a form of distraction, by means of physical pain combined with a release of emotional pressure.

People who have never engaged in self-harm find it inexplicable, however even animals turn to self-harming behaviour when they’re distressed. Knives and razors are what come to mind and yet there are many different ways to self-harm – for example, scratching, biting and slapping – but until relatively recently, it was only the more extreme version of self-harm that was recognised.

Ten years ago, if I had seen a baby in a fury, banging his head on the floor, I would have thought, ‘oh this poor baby has fallen into a bad habit of hurting themselves when they’re frustrated’. Today I would think, ‘this baby is using self-harm as a coping mechanism’. The same behaviour for the same reason; just a different set of words to describe the action. These more clinical evaluations of children’s behaviour might bring about better resolutions, but they can also lead to scary findings such as those found in this DCU report.

If self-harm has always existed, but hasn’t really been acknowledged until recently, then the good news is that we are finally beginning to address the dysfunctional coping mechanisms that children use.

If, on the other hand, it is a case that the numbers of children reporting anxiety, depression and self-harming behaviour are rising, then we need to take some time to consider what it is about our environment that is causing such distress to children? According to the DCU report, family issues and relationship breakdowns are the most common causes of mental health difficulties among children and so we really should address these issues with more consideration.

The middle ground tends to be the most accurate analysis of most aspects of life, so maybe it’s a bit of both – we have become more adept at recognising children’s distress and maybe, also, the numbers of children in emotional distress are increasing wildly because of common problems in society.

‘Professional deformation’ happens when professional training results in a distorted view of the world, and so the professional ends up viewing problems through the lens of their own field without including the perspective of the larger world.

This is why some teachers are given to presuming they know more than everyone else about any given subject and why certain gardaí tend to be suspicious of everyone.

Indeed, just last week I lost my ticket when I was in the train station and, while everyone else helped me search for it, the garda who happened to be sitting nearby eyed me darkly and clearly thought I was running a professional scam.

Thankfully, Inspector Clouseau was mollified when I suddenly found it tucked under a previously undiscovered flap in my handbag.

People in my own profession, counselling and psychotherapy, are particularly given to professional deformation and we tend to view everyone as deeply disturbed. This is why, even though I personally believe the numbers of children suffering emotionally are increasing rapidly every day, I’m aware my professional deformation would lead me to believe that and so I am hesitant to loudly proclaim that the world has gone to hell.

Thankfully, we live in a world where most people want the best for their children and most parents will go to the ends of the Earth to help their children. It is fortunate that we also live in a society that actively seeks support for people in emotional distress. Sadly, we also seem to live in a world where it seems to be becoming progressively more difficult to maintain a sense of emotional well-being.

Too many people, for too many years, have led lives of quiet desperation; perhaps we can do our bit for the world by putting our emotional well being front and centre as our purpose for today?

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