I remember watching The Virgin Suicides around the age of 14.
It was dreamy and silken, powder-puff pink, a glorification of 1970’s suburban America that – in 2000’s suburban Australia – seemed impossibly romantic. Beautiful feminine disasters, fighting familiar teenage battles: school, parents, rules. Boys.
But there was a sharpness to the movie, wasn’t there? The violent, suicidal deaths of Cecilia…then Lux, Bonnie, Mary, and Therese. Slit wrists and jumping off roofs, drug overdoses, and gassing themselves in the car.
It was dark and serious, but in my naive and hormonal teenage mind, seemed fairly reasonable. I was a moody teen, sure – but I was also a teen primed to understand that self-harm was simply a part of the fabric of life, love, and growing up.
Thankfully, I made it through unscathed.
The hormones petered out, school finished, and I sailed out of suburbia into the big, wide, happy world. I made it, without ever falling to the depths of suicidal melancholia of those beautiful Coppola girls.
But according to a two-page investigation by The Sydney Morning Herald today, I am in the minority.
One quarter of Australian women aged between 20 – 24 have self harmed in their lifetime.
This is a staggering statistic. Look around your workplace, or your gym, or the supermarket. One in four of the young women you see have felt such desperate despair that they have self-harmed. These are your best friends, sisters, daughters, grand-daughters – and you probably have no idea.
Reading the above statistic on self harm, I’m sad to report that I wasn’t that shocked.
I am a child of the 1990’s and 2000’s, when self-harm wiggled its way out of obscurity and into the mainstream market. I mean, it was featured in a teen movie starring Hillary Duff (Greta), for goodness sake.
Slitting your wrists was glorified in sexy and strange Hollywood movies like Girl, Interrupted and Thirteen. Even the characters on our beloved TV shows like The OC, or in books like Twilight, featured complicated and dark-minded teenage girls, struggling against the grain of society.
As teens, we spoke about self harm. We knew girls who did it. It wasn’t a secret, nor was it even cause for concern. It was just something young girls did.
But as an adult, I can see now how unhealthy our lackadaisical response to instances of friend’s self-harming were. I can only believe it was because we were too young to understand how serious, the serious cases really were. What it really meant.
According to Headspace, only 50% of young people who attempt self-harm will seek help.
That leaves the other half adopting a pattern of cutting, burning, pinching or scratching as a coping mechanism to deal with their demons. It will settle into regularity and follow them into adulthood, the scars addressed only in quickly averted eyes or change of topics.
Clearly, self-harm does will not always translate to a ‘suicide attempt’. It is an ongoing behavior.
But above all, it’s a call for help. And in an increasingly decentralised social environment, where physical contact and conventional social interaction are quickly disappearing under the weight of online relationships, the traditional avenues for help are fast fading.
Support networks of family and friends are drifting, replaced by Facebook or group text messages. Self-harm rates are steadily increasing from the year 2000. How are you meant to address your darkest emotional fears in that environment? And how are their loved ones meant to help?
The Sydney Morning Herald today delivered a clear answer: we need to work harder to remove the taboo of ‘asking for help’.
Recognition. Discussion. Support. Love. Problem solving. Transparency. Conversation.
In a report released by not-for-profit support network Orygon, it is “… the reluctance by so many in the community to talk to young people who are self-harming that is likely to be causing the greatest injury.”
Silence, after all, is the precursor to shame.
Medical staff have long been considered ill-equipped to deal with presentations of self-harm at hospital, preferring to swiftly process and discharge patients at the fear of drawing too much attention to the case and causing further distress. On the contrary, it their responsibility – and our own – to approach every self-harm case with support and conversation.
This can only be addressed with training and education.
19-year-old Nicole was interviewed by the Sydney Morning Herald to talk about her 6+ years as a self-harmer from the age of just 13.
“I have been hospitalised a couple of times unfortunately when I was at my worst, and the nurses and the doctors…they sort of dance around it.” said Nicole.
“They don’t really know how to be comforting, they are just doing their job – trying to fix you up and get you out of there. When really just sometimes you need somebody to be nice, and talk to you about it.”
The insensitivity at the hand of hospital staff has even been reported to extend into complete mistreatment.
“”Young people told us some terrible stories about being stapled without anaesthetic by medical staff. That wouldn’t be acceptable in any other form of medicine so why is it seen to be OK here?” said Jo Robinson, head of suicide prevention at Orygen.
Taken together with shame and stigma, it’s no wonder rates of help-seeking are so low, she said.” – Sydney Morning Herald.
Shame, for a teenage girl, is possibly the worst of all emotions.
Disney star Demi Lovato has opened up about her struggles with self harm (post continues after video):
To be humiliated in front of adults – be it hospital staff, parents, or teachers – is irrevocably damaging. Especially for something as complex and confusing as self-harm cast under the spotlight.
Most girls, like Nicole, don’t know when or why they started. All they know is that self-harm was in their collective consciousness as a coping mechanism, to the deep despair that so many try and pass off as ‘growing pains’.
One in four young women. A quarter of our country’s women in their early twenties. It still doesn’t seem right.
And these statistics only “reveal only the very tip of the iceberg”, notes The Sydney Morning Herald article, because there is no reporting system for self-harm episodes which don’t result in going to hospital.
Even more dire again are the rates for self-harm among Indigenous youth aged 15-24, who are five times more likely to self-harm than non-Indigenous youth of the same age.
This is an epidemic, and one that needs our attention urgently. Don’t ignore a cry for help.
If you are experiencing suicidal or self-harming thoughts, please contact Beyond Blue immediately, or visit their website here.