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The First Cut is the Deepest
Posted on 23, Aug 2017

Self-harm takes different forms. And it is on the rise in Ireland, especially among young people. So why has so little been done to make teenagers aware of the dangers of what is both an addiction and an illness? Write Here Write Now 2nd level winner, Somhairle O Braonain, examines the issue – and talks to three teens, Kate (16), Lee (18) and Olwyn (19).


In one of the more disturbing developments in the social media arena to date, self-harming has recently become a trend of sorts. When Zayn Malik left One Direction, the stomach-churning hashtag 'Cut4Zayn' caught fire, a mini-craze that had people tweeting pictures of their cuts in an attempt to get Zayn to rejoin One Direction.

Similarly, when pictures first surfaced of Justin Bieber


smoking weed, the hashtag ‘CuttingforBieber’ was launched. This turned out to be a joke, albeit a rather putrid one, started by online forum 4chan. But what these two examples crystallise is that, somewhere in the world of social media, the twisted notion of using self-harm to guilt-trip popular teen idols into doing things the fans way, was born.


It is a horrifying fad that exploits an affliction, which already affects millions of desperate and mostly unstable young people across the world. But it is also a dangerous one, in that it runs the risk of making the phenomenon even more accepted within the most vulnerable age group - with potentially tragic results...


Self-harm is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, pro-self-harm websites have existed online for years, which advocate and fetishise an extremely dangerous and addictive habit. Among the concerns surrounding this latest explosion in self-harm pictures, freely put into the public domain by the subjects, is that they will remain accessible online for the foreseeable future. Not only does this risk stigmatising the individuals involved, but the photos may end up being used on pro-self-harm websites to encourage other people to harm.


The Irish Story


In my experience as a teenager, there is a distinct lack of awareness about self-harming in Ireland. It is happening, but no one seems to want to talk about it. It certainly wasn’t ever discussed or referred to in my school, as part of the educational process.


In effect, it’s a taboo subject. Are teachers, and indeed the authorities in general, scared that discussing it will lead to more students trying it out? Possibly. But in the modern era, where the majority of minors have access to the internet and can be exposed to just about anything, no matter how ‘inappropriate’, should we not at least discuss the serious dangers, especially that are relevant to their own age group, upon which young people of any age who have access to the internet may stumble?


This is especially true of self-harm, since it is being discussed and displayed online as if it were natural and, to all intents and purposes, okay to participate in.


My own gut feeling is that, if it were explained correctly, it would discourage students from harming rather than inspiring them to enter into what is a murky and ultimately deeply unpleasant world...


So what is self-harm?


Self-harm is when a person deliberately inflicts an injury – of one kind or another – on themselves. It is most commonly associated with the cutting (advocated in the Cut4Zayn hashtag), but really it covers deliberately injuring oneself in any form.


Cutting is widely assumed to be the most common form of self- harm, and it is certainly the one to which a sinister glamour has attached itself. In fact, however, between 2007 and 2012, overdosing was by far the most common type of self-harm reported in Ireland, with 64% of affected males and 77% of females, reporting overdoses. Cutting came in at 26% of males and 20% of females.


Where cutting is concerned, the warning signs of someone self-harming include scars, fresh cuts, scratches, bruises, keeping sharp objects at hand, and wearing long sleeves/long trousers at odd or inappropriate times. The risk of overdosing is more difficult to detect, though a bigger appetite for chemical solutions is something that friends can and perhaps should be alert to.


Psychologists struggle to explain the genesis of self-harm. The most common explanation is probably that self-harm is used as a relief from emotional distress, when it reaches a level that the individual can’t deal with, and doesn’t or can’t ask for help.


Or to put it another way, people self-harm because they’re unable to express their emotions.


There are different potential rationalisations of what may be at work here. The individuals who engage in self-harm may, for example, want to make themselves look how they feel, registering their inner turmoil in a tangible – though not always public – way; they can be punishing themselves for their failure to express themselves, and as a result of generally low self-esteem; or, alternatively, the process may be a way of the individual attempting to take control, or of asserting that there is, indeed, something that they can do to change a course of events that may otherwise seem overwhelming to them.


Depending on its specific character, harming may also be used to communicate a need for support that the individual has otherwise been unable to seek: it can provide an immediate but temporary sense of relief from emotional distress. But, while harming isn’t always associated with suicide – the harmer may just want to hurt themselves and be far off any thoughts of ending his or her own life – it can also represent a warning that suicidal ideation might be just over the horizon.


Unfortunately, what most of those who make that first cut don’t know is that harming is addictive. Even if the harmer is clean for a period of time, all the evidence suggests that – as with many other addictions – the desire to harm stays with them, at least in the short-to-medium term.


For anyone who has been self- harming, it is important to know that you can get better. First of all there are helplines and websites you can contact (some of which are listed below). They will offer you advice, comfort and someone to talk to. Another option is talk to your parents or friends. Your parents love you and they want to help you in anyway they can. Finally, you can talk to your GP.


For anyone worried that a friend or peer needs help, you can of course use the contact details listed here. Or talk to them. Talking to them could be exactly what they need.


The official response


In Ireland, there is an unhealthy stigma around self-harm, with


the result that we have been slow to acknowledge it. All of the interviewees I spoke to agreed strongly with this. This has to change. Data from 122,743 self-harm presentations to hospitals in this country, from 2003 to 2013 showed an increase since 2004 in the rate of potentially lethal methods of self- harm. The greatest increase was among those aged between 15 and 29 years.


The government appear to be taking what might be described as ‘baby steps’ to improve this situation. In June, the Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Kathleen Lynch, the Junior Health Minister, launched the national strategy for suicide prevention, ‘Connecting for Life’.


The ‘Connecting for Life’ programme aims to make a better connection at a community level between mental health services and suicide/self-harm prevention. At the launch, Enda Kenny described ‘Connecting for Life’ as “an ambitious strategy which sets a target to reduce suicide and self-harm by 10% over the next five years.”


But is this enough? Whatever commitment may exist on a government level, there is a distinct absence of wider awareness. During the debates before the Same Sex Marriage Referendum, the point was raised that allowing marriage rights to gays in Ireland would have the potential to lower the rate of LGBT teens self-harming. The Fine Gael TD, Dan Neville, who has campaigned strongly on the issue of suicide, stated that gay people are ten times more likely to self-harm that hetrosexuals.

The hope is that the generally much more positive and accepting attitude reflected in the passing of the referendum to forms of sexuality that were once denounced as sins, and were as a result as source of confusion and guilt for many, will deliver a payoff in terms of teenagers’ comfort with their own sexuality, whatever form it takes...


Meanwhile, ‘Connecting for Life’ is clearly more focused on suicide rather than self-harm, and so it is unlikely to affect any great raising of awareness. Indeed you get


the feeling, once again, that the powers-that-be want to tippy-toe their way around something that is crying out for genuine action. Obviously suicide has a permanent effect and is a really serious issue – but the danger is that the need to address the issue of self-harm will be lost in the association...


Olwyn's story


I was 12 years old when I first self-harmed. Personally, I wasn’t able to deal with extreme emotions like anger or sadness. It’s difficult, to not have an outlet for those emotions, and that’s at least partly why I started.


I just thought it would be a better outlet to hurt myself rather than to scream at people or hurt someone else. And also, it was a way to deal with not feeling anything. When you’re depressed, it’s not like feeling sadness – it’s feeling numb and emotionless. So people do it sometimes because they need to feel something.


I remember, in school, if you were, like, an emo, people would say ‘aw, do you cut yourself’? People think that you are either doing it for attention or that you’re emo, and treat it like a joke – but anyone can self harm, it’s not just one set of people...


It is hard to stop, but the first thingtodoistotrytogetridof the tools that you use. I don’t use pencil sharpeners anymore, because I know I would end up taking the blade out of it and using that. You have to find other ways to deal with your emotions.


Sometimes I’d be on tumblr or twitter and I’d see self-harm websites – and it can be very triggering, so I try my best to avoid them.


In terms of what you can do to help, if you are worried that someone is self-harming, the first thing to do is talk to them. Even that can be a big help...


Lee's story


I started self harming when I had just turned 17. I was going through a break-up and tried it out and thought “Hey, this is actually a good way to deal with it.” Gradually, I turned to it whenever I had a problem.


People don’t actually know how to deal with self-harm in Ireland. Like sometimes they’d see a completely diffetrent person because of it. They kinda mistake them for someone else; they think they’re dealing with a bit of a psycho, which is not the case.


If someone wants help, the first thing to do is go to your


GP. Just set up an appointment, and tell them how you’ve been feeling, what you’ve been doing, and they will forward you on to someone more professional and who is able to deal with that sort of situation.


I stopped when I turned 18. One thing had lead to another and I realised it was a strategy – but not the best one I could’ve used at the time.


I’ve always stayed away frompro-self harm sites. I don’t think it’s a very positive place to be on the internet, because they can trigger something.


If you think someone wants help, just talk to them and say like, “how are you feeling, how are you getting on, is there anything you want to chat about?” – anything like that just to get the conversation going.


I was 13 when I first self-harmed. I tried it once then left it, then tried it again, and then didn’t do it for a while. Then I got into a long-term routine of doing it. I was bullied alotasakid,andonedaywe went on a school trip. The other kids threw stones at me, so I hid in my room, breaking a bottle of perfume in the process. One thing lead to another really....


Self-harm is a lot more widespread than people think. A lot of the people I know have had experiences with it. The stigma surrounding self-harm Ireland is ridiculous. On one end of the scale, there’s almost no communication. People don’t talk about it – there’s a mentality of: “if we don’t speak of it, it’s not happening.”


On the other hand it is normalised to the point where – for young people – it seems like such an easy thing. No one should ever think, “Oh I’ll try it once and then it’s over” – because it never is. It’s a cycle, that they go through every day, where they say: “I’m not going to do it today” and they do; or they think “I’m going to stop next week” and they can’t. I remember being on one website where somebody had posted a ‘fake your own self-harm’ thing and it was really upsetting that people were making a joke of it or romanticising something as painful as self-harm.


I think one of the worst things you can do is go to friends to look for help: you don’t know how people are going to take it. Sure, there might be someone that you trust, but then it might spread and you never know where it could go. For a lot of people, going to their parents is a good thing – but for some people it’s not. So


I think people should look to hot lines and anonymous messaging.


If someone does come to you for help, always remain level- headed. People sometimes get really upset or angry, which is no help. Communicate your fears, communicate your concerns and communicate that you don’t think that this is actually helping them. To give strength to the person is the best thing you can do for them.