Our new CSR initiative across the whole Cello group is called “Talking Taboos” and aims to tackle subjects “where ignorance, fear, or shame can lead to problems going unnoticed and untreated”. We began with the issue of self-harm among young people, with a working hypothesis that not talking about self-harm (admittedly a delicate and emotionally charged subject) was in fact contributing to the problem.
What we discovered was that there are in fact a number of arenas where self-harm is discussed openly, but these are mostly online and dominated by young people themselves with little input from adults in positions of authority. The anonymity and informality of these sites tend to make young people feel more comfortable discussing personal experiences, but along with it comes a problem of contributors being unaccountable and untraceable. Comments can range from those “inciting self-harm to [those] mocking and ridiculing those who do it.” (quoting from the full report which can be read here)
In contrast, outside of these more niche communities, we found that quite systematically, each social group we spoke to, felt that they did not know how to talk about self-harm – at the most basic level, what words to use.
Parents are labouring under a (not wholly correct) assumption that self-harm happens in the home, and therefore that they must be to blame. They worry that they have not equipped their child to cope with the emotional challenges of life, and they are afraid that any professionals they contact would judge them on their parenting skills. Consequently, one third of parents would not seek professional help if their child was self-harming.
At RS Consulting, together with mruk, our role in the research was to carry out an online quantitative survey of 200 GPs distributed throughout Great Britain. We found that within the health service there has been an alarming rise in young people accessing treatment for self-harm: 38,000 young people were treated in 2010, compared to 22,555 in 2001. In spite of this, 85% of GPs have not been trained specifically on self-harm, and 60% do not know “what language to use” when talking to a young person about self-harm.
Teachers have been trained to refer a young person who may be self-harming on immediately to a Child Protection Officer. They have even been trained to use neutral language and retain a neutral facial expression. In worrying about “saying the wrong thing”, their intentions are obviously good, but is holding this young person at arms-length really the best strategy?
The thoughts and feelings which have led a young person to self-harm may be emotionally or intellectually difficult to articulate in the first place. They need to be encouraged to come forwards, yet as it stands, it is up to them to approach the adults in their lives, and those very adults lack the verbal tools to begin communicating with them. The first step forwards is creating a culture where adults with either professional or personal connections to young people are talking about self-harm, where we are open-minded about who might be doing it and why. Our research seeks to be the springboard to initiate this.