Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Messages to health services and schools

We asked the people we spoke to if they had any messages for healthcare professionals and schools, based on their experiences of caring for young people who self-harmed. 

Health service professionals

Helping parents
Many parents stressed the importance of being included by clinicians in their child’s treatment (see also ‘Mental health services – involvement of families’). Charles advised ‘the more you can involve the parents, either with or without the patient, the better, so that we have a better understanding of what is going on and what the prognosis is.’ People thought clinicians would also gain more understanding of the family situation by asking parents about it. As Ann said, ‘We’re the ones providing the support and care for the majority of the time when they [clinicians] are not around.’ Liz agreed: ‘Just listen to parents. They do know. They know their child better than anyone.’
Some parents commented on the way clinicians spoke to them. Philip said: ‘Remember that we don’t all understand the jargon.’ Jane S recommended that healthcare professionals should get feedback from parents so they could ‘speak the same language’ to other parents and avoid being too clinical. Joanna and Anna advised clinicians not to dismiss parents because they were not medically qualified. Nicky told us it would be helpful if clinicians explained to parents why they were suggesting some things, for example how to cut safely.
Anna thought it essential for treatment plans to be acceptable to parents. ‘Don’t impose on parents, work with parents to see if things are workable within the home, and if parents are happy with that, because it won’t work unless you’ve got parents on board working with you to help it go through. Because if you haven’t got parents at ease with things, they’re not going to follow through.’

Parents wanted health professionals to recognise the impact of self-harm on the whole family. Ann would have liked to be asked how she was coping herself, but realised this might raise hopes which couldn’t be met: ‘If you say, “Well actually, I’m not coping at all”, where do they go with that, because there isn’t anywhere to go with it?’ Bernadette thinks carers’ medical records could be marked so their situation could be recognised when they visit the doctor.

Audio & video

Helping young people
Several parents said it was important for healthcare professionals to be sensitive to the needs of young people who self-harm, to take them seriously and not judge them. Vicki thought GPs should find out more about self-harm and not ‘brush aside’ people who come to them with problems. Annette and Fiona said clinicians should avoid a ‘tick-box’ approach, and treat people as individuals. Mary sometimes felt that the message she received was “Well, we haven’t got time for this”. Her advice to healthcare professionals treating her son is: ‘Don’t dismiss it. Recognise that it’s something that the family has to deal with and perhaps needs some advice and reassurance about. Don’t just say, “Oh yes well, he would.” Or brush it off.’
Suggestions for improvement
Although they recognised that health services were often underfunded and staff overstretched, parents suggested ways in which things might be improved. Some would have liked easier access to services. ‘I think CAMHS [Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services] are a bit over stretched in what they can do and the time they’ve got available to do it’, Tracey told us. ‘It almost felt to me as if we’d have to be practically asking my son to step down from the top of the building before he could access those services and to me that’s too late.’ Annette thought a 24-hour drop-in service would be useful. Ann said there should be local psychiatric admission units where people in crisis could be taken instead of to Accident and Emergency departments where staff were busy and not trained in mental health issues. She also wanted the out-of-hours service to provide support by coming to her house when her daughter was suicidal. Susan Y would like individual sessions where she could speak in confidence to her daughter’s therapist.
Parents thought more information and practical advice should be available. Tam suggested having leaflets about self-harm in doctors’ waiting rooms. Mary had been given leaflets but thought they could be improved: ‘they’re so general that they don’t actually say anything’. She wanted more practical care advice.
A few parents had ideas about how schools could deal with the problem of self-harm. They thought schools should be able to identify young people who need help and refer them on to appropriate services. They also suggested that information about self-harm should be included in the curriculum, including how to spot signs of distress and the dangers of drug overdoses.

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