Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Mental health problems

We know that most young people who present to hospital following self-harm have mental health problems, especially depression, substance misuse, anxiety disorders, and eating disorders. It is less clear whether this is the case for young people who self-harm in the community and do not seek help from the health service, although they do report more symptoms of depression and anxiety than those who do not self-harm.

Many of the young people whose parents we talked to had mental health problems which played a part in their self-harming behaviour. Depression was the most common illness mentioned, but other mental health problems included eating disorders, borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and anxiety. It could be worrying for parents when doctors couldn’t agree on a diagnosis. Jo said she’d feel a lot better if she knew what her daughter’s diagnosis was.
Nicky’s daughter’s research had probably come up with the right diagnosis. However, two of the fathers we interviewed thought their sons might have used the internet to find out about symptoms of various mental health conditions in an unhelpful way. One dad said ‘He’s starting to get uncomfortably glib in the terminology. He can reel off OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder] quite convincingly.’

Some young people had more than one mental health problem. Jane S thought that her daughter’s depression and obsessive compulsive disorder gave rise to an eating disorder which might have been prevented if she had been treated earlier. Eating disorders were seen as another form of self-harm, often resulting from low self-esteem and self-hatred. In addition, evidence shows that eating disorders are often accompanied by self-harm. Jim said his daughter turned to self-harm about six months into the onset of her anorexia. A few parents worried that alcohol and drug abuse contributed to their child’s self-harming behaviour.

Although for many parents their child’s self-harm was a major feature of their mental illness, usually depression, some saw it as just a part of their wider problems, or even as a way of coping with their mental illness. Alexis thought her daughter’s self-harming (cutting) was ‘almost separate from her depression’, which had resulted in two serious overdoses. She said ‘I don’t know whether I’d ever thought that she would try and kill herself. I wanted to believe that self-harming doesn’t have to lead to that…she was obviously a young woman with a mental health problem. So this wasn’t just about self-harming. It had gone on from there’. The evidence suggests that Alexis is right and that self-harm rarely leads to suicide. This is true even when people hear voices telling them to kill themselves.
Several parents described their own mental health problems, which some thought might have contributed to self-harm in their children. There is evidence that children of people with mental health problems are more likely to develop mental health problems themselves. In many cases this may be genetic. Some of the parents we talked to felt better able to understand and help their child because of their own experiences.
See also ‘What parents and carers think’ and ‘Family history of mental health problems’, and the modules on young people’s experiences of ‘Depression and low mood’, and ‘Eating disorders’.

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