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NOT ALONE: Teenage girls need to know help is there
“I used to feel like all this pain and electricity was running through my veins and there was screaming inside my head,” says Stephanie, now 30, a PhD student.
“By cutting myself I was expressing something I didn’t have the words to talk about.”
Alarming new research by The Children’s Society has revealed that one in five 14-year-old girls in the UK have self-harmed in the past year.
The survey of 11,000 children found that 22 per cent of girls and nine per cent of boys had hurt themselves deliberately.
As someone who self-harmed throughout her teenage years Stephanie was saddened but not shocked by these numbers.
“I think most teenagers looking at them would not be surprised either,” she says.
“People are scared to talk to young people about self-harm because they think if they talk about it, it’ll happen. But the reality is that it’s happening anyway and because there’s such a stigma around it teenagers don’t seek help.”
The report comes after a study by Manchester University showed that self-harm among teenage girls has risen 68 per cent in the past three years alone.
So why is self-harm so prevalent among teenage girls?
Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, a clinical psychologist from The Priory Group, believes it’s partly because of the way girls are taught to deal with emotions.
“Girls tend to internalise their distress. They then feel overwhelmed by their feelings which can lead to self-harm.
“On the other hand, boys will often externalise their distress by becoming angry, hitting something, or being verbally aggressive. They struggle with their emotions just as frequently as girls but cope in different ways.”
She believes increasing exam pressure is partly to blame for the rising numbers of girls who are self-harming. “Expectations placed on young people have increased,” Hayley says.
“Pressure to achieve academically and to access a good career is higher than in past decades.”
Stephanie, who lives in Belfast with her partner John, 30, a psychologist, can sympathise.
“When my self-harming was at its most severe it was between the ages of 17 and 18. During my final exams I was self-harming every single night.
“I thought if I didn’t get good grades my life would be over because you’re taught in school that if you don’t pass you’re not going to be able to do anything with your life.”
Girls tend to internalise their distress. They then feel overwhelmed by their feelings which can lead to self-harm
Hayley believes social media also plays a role.
“Constant access to social media means a higher scrutiny out of school of their social life, appearance and activities,” she says. And Stephanie agrees.
“There’s this pressure to be living your very best life.
“But you can end up feeling very lonely because it creates this idea of people being outside and looking in. “We feel it as adults so it’s even worse for children.”
What’s more, she believes the political climate could also have an impact.
“There’s so much uncertainty about what the world is going to look like in the future.
“Society is very divided and teenagers can pick up on that too.”
For Stephanie her struggle with self-harming started when she was 12 after feeling different from her friends.
“I had a wonderful friendship group but I felt a great sadness at not being like everyone else,” she explains.
“When I was 13 everyone else was going out and having their first kiss, going to junior discos and things like that.
“I felt depressed and knew I was different from my friends but I didn’t know why.”
Stephanie, who was eventually diagnosed as having bipolar disorder, found that self-harming helped to release her emotions.
“It was the only way I could express how I was feeling because I didn’t have the words to describe it.”
She also became fascinated with famous people who were known to self-harm.
“I started learning about celebrities who did this, not to copy them but to make me feel less alone.
“Richey Edwards from the Manic Street Preachers was one of the people I read about. “He started self-harming once when he was being interviewed for a magazine.”
When she was 13 Stephanie’s parents discovered that she was self-harming and took her to see a psychiatrist.
“I used to hide myself under layers of clothing. But once, late at night, I went a bit too far and freaked myself out with what I’d done.
“My parents heard me crying and came into my room.
“They were scared too because they didn’t know what was happening. I don’t think they’d ever seen a case of self-harm in their lives.”
Sadly the psychiatrist didn’t help.
“She yanked my sleeve up and said, ‘Why would you do this to yourself?’
“She used a really accusing tone. Being shamed feeds your feelings of self-hatred.”
Throughout her teenage years and into her early 20s Stephanie struggled with bad patches of mental health when she would cut herself again.
22 per cent of girls and nine per cent of boys had hurt themselves deliberately
But eventually she found a more sympathetic psychiatrist and gradually developed some better coping strategies. “Even now when I get really bad news or I feel upset the first thing I want to do is self-harm.
“But I have to stop and think how it would affect others around me. The healthy thing to do is talk about your feelings instead of bottling them up so I try to do that with my partner or friends.”
Stephanie believes that getting help earlier could have prevented her self-harming from becoming so serious.
“It became my go-to behaviour because I didn’t have an opportunity to talk about it,” she says.
“And even now kids aren’t receiving mental health education so they’re not equipped to deal with how they feel.” And Hayley also believes education is the best way to tackle the mental health crisis among teenagers.
“We have always taught children how to cross a road safely and not to approach strangers who entice them in public. “Now we need to teach young people how to safely navigate the internet and social media, how to weigh up pressure being placed on them.
“Kids should be taught to judge themselves on qualities such as kindness and understanding rather than appearance.”