More than 100,000 children aged 14 in the UK are self-harming, with one in four girls of this age having deliberately hurt themselves, according to a new report.
Don’t get me wrong. It is shocking. But it’s also shocking to be addicted to drugs, drink, food, glue (remember that one?)…and it’s shocking to have OCD or anorexia or bulimia or anxiety or anger issues, or, or, or…
The truth is that self harm is NOT a new variation of mental illness that we need to gen up on – or seek new experts in.
Instead, it’s another variation in young people’s response to feeling like they have no control in their lives…that’s been building for some time, creating an epidemic of simple decision anxiety.
Because if you’re under 25, no decision seems simple anymore.
Every decision has been loaded with such significance that, when you add a ‘simple’ decision (like what subjects to choose for GCSE’s) onto the emotional roadside skip filled with ‘ordinary’ pressures (such as parental discord, sibling arguments, teacher stress, friend fall-outs, the economy, the environment, social media) it can all become overwhelming.
Everything seems to be so life critical….
…and, since all your friends are under the same pressure, your teachers are under OFSTED pressure, your parents are under employment or debt pressure, where do you go with the strain of these overwhelming and life critical choices…that, allegedly, influence the outcome of your entire life?
Instead, you allow these bigger pressures to accumulate with all the smaller pressures, unable to do anything about any of them. You try to fit in and do what’s asked of you (even if you get no credit for it).
The truth is you desperately need to do something that’s about you and what you want (even if you’re not sure what that is), something that doesn’t require permission from somebody else; and something that you – and only you – can make a decision on.
The trouble is that no-one ever taught you how to distinguish between good decisions and bad decisions, because you never really got to make any, without the biased input of adults around you.
So you self harm, or you stop eating, or you eat too much, or you obsess about things, or you drink too much, stay out too late, get angry…etc.
And the answer isn’t more counsellors and psychiatrists.
Part of the answer is to recognise the pressure we are loading onto young people; and the toxic environments we have created by not being in full control of our own mental well-being; by not saying NO to excessive demands on our own lives, by unconsciously choosing to be blinkered to our own complicity in the mad world that surrounds us.
And part of the answer is to start creating situations and environments where young people can take decisions, take risks. And get it wrong sometimes, without criticism or judgement.
This can start in simple ways…like finding their own way to school (instead of the school run); like allowing ‘unsupervised’ play, like saving for their own phone, like choosing some of their own subjects.
Small hinges swing big doors, so the saying goes.
If you’re a parent or teacher, resolve to work on your own mental well being…leave work a little earlier, talk about how you feel, meditate, encourage the workplace to introduce positive mental health practices.
Do at least one small thing for yourself.
– and create simple situations where the young people in your care can take a decision of their own (like decorating a wall of their own room, for example).
And accept the consequences, without judgement. So, if the wall ends up graffitied, go with it. If they choose to change it back, let that be their decision.
Support them in small decisions and bigger decisions will become easier.
You might just protect them from self harm.