Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Support for parents and carers dealing with self-harm

Although there are various services for young people who self-harm, those who look after them may need support themselves. The parents and carers we spoke to told us what they had found helpful and what support they would have liked (see also ‘Looking for information, help and support’). 

Family, friends and work
Many people were supported by their partners, family and close friends. Gwendoline said she felt very lucky that her husband was so supportive. She didn’t know how she could have got through the last six months without him. Friends who were non-judgemental were valued. Sarah Y’s friend gave her practical help in looking after her other children while Sarah was dealing with her daughter’s self-harm. On the other hand, Debbie said she had lost a lot of friends because they didn’t understand.
Some parents had sympathetic work colleagues and were allowed time off when they needed it and offered counselling. However, managers were not always understanding. Ann's new manager 'hasn't got a clue' and denied her requests for carer's leave. Other parents didn’t want people at work to know about their problems. 
Support groups
Support groups were helpful for some parents, though often they focussed on specific conditions such as eating disorders. Several parents said they would like the opportunity to speak to other carers of people who self-harm. ‘If I could hear someone else saying, “Oh yes, my daughter, son, has done that,”’ Joanne told us, ‘then perhaps I might feel better about it.’ Some felt they would prefer speaking to ‘strangers’ who didn’t know their family. Susan Y explained: ‘I was desperate for some support group. I was desperate to find somebody to share the experience with, but somebody who didn’t know me because I didn’t want that personal information about my daughter being shared.’
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Mental health charities and helplines
People talked about their contact with mental health charities and helplines, especially Mind, Young Minds, and Rethink Mental Illness. Rethink provided a mentor for Philip and Mary’s son, and a local charity was a source of funding for carers to take a break. Audrey and her husband were greatly helped by a worker from Penumbra. Jane Z said Harmless, a self-harm support charity, ‘is exactly the kind of help we need. It is practical. It’s not interrogation. It’s not judgemental. They seem to have exactly the understanding of what this situation is, i.e. it’s not a disease.’ 
Some parents found support and information through the internet. Several mentioned Time to Change, a site sponsored by Mind and Rethink. Internet forums could provide a place to share experiences, but parents acknowledged that there might be problems. Alexis advised: ‘There’ll be lots of really needy people and you have to be very careful that you don’t take other people’s stuff when you’ve got your own stuff to deal with’. Sarah Z found forums which made her feel worse. ‘It was very gloomy reading,’ she told us, ‘and didn’t offer any constructive helpful advice.’ Twitter posts helped Joanne understand why people self-harm. ‘You can follow people who are actually doing the harm and see what they’re going through, whereas my daughter wouldn’t tell me. I’d just see the harm, but they explain what they were going through to do the harm in the first place.’ Susan Z talked about web pages with positive information, hints and tips for coping with self-harm. 
Health services
People may need help from health services when they are caring for someone who self-harms. Audrey’s GP was ‘brilliant’ when she became depressed. Isobel said her GP was ‘really helpful’, but Susan Y’s GP told her there was no help available, and that she should use her own resources and find someone to talk to. Several parents had benefitted from counselling. Tracey learned coping strategies and valued the chance to ‘offload’ and ‘put the feelings somewhere else for a little while and talk about them.’ A private counsellor helped Annette understand herself and what was happening to her son. She said ‘I’d pay anything just to be me again, just to be happy.’ Joanna was pleased with the counsellor she saw through her work, but decided not to take up the Mental Health Service offer of support for carers: ‘I said “No, I will cope by myself.” Besides, I am a very practical person. Tell me what to do, in practical steps and I’ll do it. I don’t like airy-fairy talk. I don’t like theorising so I didn’t contact them back.’ Jo-Ann had received cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT). She said, ‘I think they’re both equally valid but DBT gives you the tools that you need, rather than doing it for you, they enable you to help yourself.’
Information and advice
Many parents wanted information and advice. Some had found this through websites or books. Liz said she did a lot of reading, which was very helpful, but her husband ‘didn’t want to know. If he had a moment when he wasn’t dealing with an issue, he wanted it to be for himself’. Susan Z has read some ‘brilliant’ books, and would like leaflets or flash cards to summarise their main points. Jo didn’t want written information, but would have preferred to be put in touch with a ‘befriending service’ where she could meet someone in a similar situation ‘for a cup of tea’. Nick said, ‘A lot more information about frequency, causes, and where to go for help would be really useful.’ Joanne wanted practical advice, ‘someone to say to me, “This is what you need to do with your daughter.”’ Jane S has written a book to help parents of young people who self-harm.
Other sources of support
People told us about other things that helped them. Some mentioned meditation and relaxation, taking exercise and distracting themselves with enjoyable activities. Nicky’s training as a Samaritan was probably ‘one of the best supports’ she had. Several parents talked of the comfort they gained from their faith. ‘Prayer has been helpful,’ Joanna told us. ‘It calms me because I believe there is a plan and greater power that will see me through.’ Sandra said her church pastors ‘come to the house and pray for us as a family and counsel us, so that has been our support network as opposed to accessing the CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service) family services.’

Last reviewed December 2017.

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