If you found out your friend or child was self-harming, you would instinctively want to tell them to stop, wouldn’t you? Well it turns out that may not be the best or healthiest response. In some new research that has been released and with a leading story in The Independent on Monday there is a challenging and much needed discussion to be had around how we should respond and support self-harm amongst teenagers. As we begin to think and prepare for Self-Harm Awareness day (01.03.17), I felt it was worth looking at this idea of not telling young people to stop harming.


“Mental health units should consider providing sterile cutting equipment to some self-harming patients because forcibly stopping their behaviour can prove more damaging in the long run, it has been argued.” (Independent online accessed 14.02.17)


This is a bold statement and one that could cause controversy, but I think there is scope in discussing this more fully. Patrick Sullivan who is a researcher in self-harm says the following in the article


“Enforced interventions to stop patients injuring themselves are likely to produce a confrontational rather than therapeutic environment that increases levels of distress and reduces the chance of a positive outcome in the longer term”. (Independent online accessed 14.02.17)


This notion of “enforced intervention” resonated with me, when I am made to either start or stop doing something I become confrontational and more stressed out.  I rebel harder, I shout louder and I do anything to kick back against what I am being told to do.


Reflective practice and self-awareness is a key skill here, from my own experiences of working with children, young people and families for roughly 16 years, I think the why and how questions are vital. Why do you feel the need to harm, how can I help you and what feelings do you experience before and after an episode of harm? It’s only when young people understand and identify their feelings around self-harm that they can stop and move forward. I think you need to ask yourself if you were self-harming and all someone did was tell you to stop, would that really help?    


However, there is another side to this debate that cannot be ignored, in the same article Bernadka Dubica, the incoming chair of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists says this


“Young people who self-harm should be encouraged to gradually learn less harmful ways of responding to their distress. This can be a difficult and slow process, and young people may need a lot of support to establish new ways of coping.” (Independent online accessed 14.02.17) 


I think the most challenging thing to think about is the call for us to use interventions that are wholly appropriate for those individuals. They need to be tailored to meet the specific needs of the young person we are working with; we cannot have a one size fits all approach. We need to be able to listen and reflect constantly to ascertain what they need from us and how they can achieve healthier coping strategies in times of emotional turmoil and distress.


You can read the full article here http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/allow-self-harm-mental-health-patients-researcher-patrick-sullivan-reduction-university-of-a7572136.html

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