Supporting young women who self-harm

In the light of recent news revealing a drastic rise in self-harm among teenage girls, Naomi Salisbury, Director at Self Injury Support, a Bristol-based, volunteer-led charity providing help and advice to women and girls who self-harm, speaks about the lack of action and difficulties in providing help for those affected.

Young woman looking at her smartphone
Young woman looking at her smartphone
Naomi Salisbury

It was recently reported that the number of girls under the ages of 18 treated in hospital after self-harming has nearly doubled in two decades, rising from 7,327 in 1997 to 13,463 in 2017. In comparison, figures for boys only rose by four per cent during that time. These figures are not surprising, and match our own, which show that 60 per cent of the young women who contact Self Injury Support (SIS) are under 16, with the youngest contacts being eight and nine years old.

Reporting of self-harm has been improved in hospital systems and, increasingly, crisis support plans from mental health services suggest attending A&E departments, so it’s not surprising that this has resulted in higher rates of reported self-harm.

At SIS, we have noticed that our services are being used more intensively than a year ago, but this may be because we have consolidated our hours and we have opened our text, email and webchat support service to women of any age. What has stood out to us is the increase in contact from young women who have had very traumatic experiences such as abuse and sexual assault who have then ended up using self-harm to cope with those experiences.

We have also noted a considerable increase in requests from schools for information and support, often related to cuts in school counselling and wellbeing services. I think the biggest concern is how frequently these headlines appear and how little action is taken in response apart from political soundbites.

Common issues our clients identify around self-harm focus on difficulties in family and other close relationships, unstable home lives and eating distress, while workers we have contact with often identify increased thresholds for mental health support as being a barrier to getting young people with mental health difficulties support at an early stage. As with many emotional issues, early intervention or prevention by supporting someone to deal with difficult practical or emotional experiences is far better than waiting until someone is at the point of harming themselves.

It’s tempting to see the rise in self-harm as a ‘new’ phenomenon driven by social media, and certainly social media constantly brings idealised images of women into our lives and puts on pressure to ‘publicly perform’ the perfect life with an intensity that wasn’t experienced before the growth of the internet. However, blaming social media or seeing it as solely unhelpful feels like a get-out clause that precludes the need for society to reflect on the experiences of young people.

In fact, the impact of social media and the internet has led SIS to develop new ways of reaching out to and interacting with women through our service. We have moved from a phone-only service to offering multi-channel support across phone, text, email and webchat; these digital platforms have the advantage of being usable anywhere, so someone could be at home watching TV with their family or on the bus and still able to access support. We find all services are used equally but young people do seem to prefer the digital support over phone support.

As a society we pay a lot of lip service to mental wellbeing, and talk about mental health issues, but give less space to discussing and accepting that some experiences will be very distressing and that we all need support at times, without it meaning there is something ‘wrong’ with us. Focusing on mental illness locates issues in the individual, when young people, like all humans, need a range of people able to offer them time, space and validation as they make their way in the world.

A good first step towards addressing self-harm is simply to be aware of the value of time, space and human contact when someone is struggling. There is so much focus on efficiency and speed and whether things can be replaced by tech that sometimes the basics get overlooked.

It’s circular – if we didn’t all feel we have to work or be seen to be working as much as possible, we’d have more time for each other and feel more able to offer support when someone is in distress rather than feeling overwhelmed ourselves. For me, it starts with it being OK to do not a lot in the company of people you love.

Self Injury Support offers services on two levels – direct support through phone, text, email and webchat through a team of specialist volunteers, as well as online self-help information and tools. The charity also offers training, consultancy and information services with the aim of informing and improving any service that works with people who use self-harm.