Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Looking for information, help and support

When people discover that someone close to them is self-harming they often search for information and support. The parents and carers we spoke to told us about their experiences of this. 
For most parents their first instinct was to look on the internet, though Mary and Pat said they hadn’t thought of this. Susan Z and Dot would have searched online if internet access had been easily available when their child was self-harming. ‘We live in a world with the Internet now,’ said Dot, ‘We can all go on to the Internet and Google. I guess if this was seventeen years ago I’d go straight on to the computer when she’d gone back to school and I’d be Googling self-harm and looking up anything I could find, any information at all. And then just looking also to see if there were any helplines or anywhere I could go.’ Tam found a useful site where she could print off items to show her daughter. Jane S used online first aid advice from St John’s Ambulance and Red Cross when she dealt with her daughter’s cuts. Parents also used the internet to search for wider information about their child’s mental health problems.

Several parents stressed the importance of finding reliable information from trustworthy sources, such as NHS Direct or mental health charities. 
Some parents, like Sharon, wanted to find websites where people shared their experiences of self-harm. Ruth said ‘It would be really helpful to have other people’s experiences and have professional points of view, so that it’s not such an alienating experience as it has been for me.’ Others wanted something more factual.
Sometimes material found on the internet can be disturbing. Ruth said some sites scared her instead of reassuring her that her daughter would get better. Susan Y came across lots of ‘horror stories’ and was upset by ‘scaremongering’ websites. She wanted to understand why her daughter self-harmed but was worried by sites which linked self-harm to abuse, as this wasn’t an issue for her family. While abuse and self-harm are not necessarily connected, self-harm is more likely in young people who have experienced abuse or neglect. Gwendoline looked up depression and found this upsetting. She explained ‘It made me think about things that I hadn’t maybe thought about. And so I started worrying about those so I just felt it better not to.’ Alexis decided not to look for information on self-harm: ‘I just wanted it to go away and I think I would have really scared myself at that point if I’d looked too deeply into the information on self-harming. I just got terrified about what maybe was going to happen, and, at that point, I didn’t need to know. I just needed to deal with what was happening.’ 
Several parents found useful information and support from mental health organisations, through information leaflets, helplines and face-to-face contact, as well as their websites. Tracey had been in contact with Parentline, I’ve Got a Teenager, and Young Minds. Debbie and Vicki had also been helped by Young Minds. 
Parents told us about other ways in which they had found information. Isobel had been helped by books, newspaper articles and TV documentaries. Nick and Sarah Z had learnt about self-harm through a talk at their child’s school by a psychiatrist. Dot was working with a leading authority on self-harm who helped her understand reasons for the behaviour. Jim identified world experts on eating disorders and self-harm through the internet and made personal contact with them through email or telephone. Books and brochures from Rethink and Mind were helpful for Susan Z. She sent her daughter links to YouTube videos to show her that people can recover from mental ill health.

Sometimes people seek help from their general practitioner when they are concerned about a young person’s welfare. Jane S’s doctors supported her personally (see also ‘Going to the GP’) but she didn’t think they had much experience about self-harming. ‘They couldn’t offer anything’, she said, ‘They couldn’t really support me with the issue’. Alexis remembered speaking to her GP: ‘He said, “Well, you know, it is just going to get worse.” And it was like, “Ah, what do you do with that? Thank you for that grenade you have just handed me.”’ Dot didn’t feel she could go to her GP as her daughter had confided in him and she thought it wouldn’t be fair. When Susan Y took her daughter to the GP he refused to refer her to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service because he said she wasn’t mentally ill, and Susan found little support for her own feelings either. She told us ‘When I went back to the GP about how I was feeling, “Well, it’s not impacting on you. Are you sleeping?” “Yes.” “Are you off work?” “No.” “Are you, is it affecting your lifestyle that you can’t function?” “No.” So because I didn’t tick any boxes, therefore, there’s nothing there and, actually, what I wanted to do is I wanted to talk to somebody about how I was feeling and how I felt.’
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In some cases parents had looked for help but were unable to find any. There were no leaflets in Jackie’s local library. She found information on Google but wanted personal contact. Susan Y looked for a support group but when she rang the contact number it had been disconnected. She said there were services for the person who self-harmed, but none for parents. The importance of self-reliance was also pointed out. As Tracey says (see clip above): ‘At the end of the day you’ve only got your own resolve’. Jackie advises ‘Try and get help, but be resourceful yourself as well, because you can’t solely rely on outside help at all.’

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