Our young people are trying to talk to us, but are we listening?
Published 12/11/2009 | 08:00
A considerable proportion of the young people of the north are in bits. Everybody knows this in a vague sort of way.
Whole communities in the areas which bore the brunt of the conflict suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress. The Troubles continue to shudder the lives of many thousands of families.
Add in the powerlessness, insecurities, agonies and angsts of adolescence and the condition is compounded, intensified, until, for some, it becomes too much.
Here's a quote from one of the lucky ones: "For me, I find self-harm to be a way of fair punishment for everything I do wrong. Blaming myself is the easiest way and it stops arguments coming from it.
"Depression is now part of everyone's life. Some don't understand what it really is and slag people off for showing their emotions through a blade, knife, rope etc. What happens in my life is my fault. I cause the events to occur and therefore I take responsibility. Without help I would not be here today, dying was my only way out but someone, my counsellor, my friends, my family, gave me a reason to live."
She was lucky because she found help.
Others find release in 'recreational rioting'. Stop for 10 minutes and talk to a band of hoodies waiting to ambush the police car they are trying to lure into the area and you'll know that there's little political going on here, little even of what might be called criminality.
To some extent, it's a form of self-harm. They know that even if they succeed in the evening's enterprise, they won't have made any definable point. They know they might be caught and convicted, and that could damage whatever hopes they have of their lives improving. But this is not a consideration.
The quote above comes from a report, Getting Away From The Hurt? produced by Dirk Schubotz, of the School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work at Queen's.
It is based on the Young Life and Times survey conducted last December by ARK (Access Research Knowledge). It involved 941 16-year-old respondents from across Northern Ireland. It is much the most representative regular survey of teenagers' attitudes to themselves and their problems and their relationship to the society around them.
The thrust of the inquiry is expressed in three opening questions answered by each of the participants: whether they had ever suffered from serious personal, emotional, behavioural or mental health problems for which they felt they needed professional help; whether they had ever seriously considered taking an overdose or otherwise harming themselves; and whether they had actually done so.
The results show that one in five of our 16-year-olds has suffered problems serious enough to believe that they needed professional help, but fewer than half of these have actually sought help.
One in seven has seriously considered harming themselves, one in 10 has actually done so: of these, half have done so more than once.
Youngsters from less well-off families are significantly more likely than their better-off counterparts to report personal/emotional/mental health problems. They are also more likely to have considered self-harming - and twice as likely to have actually tried to harm themselves (16% to 18%).
This strongly suggests that the percentage of 16-year-olds at risk of self-harm is much higher than has been generally believed and is significantly skewed towards those from relatively poor families.
The survey provided no support for the theory that young people who harm themselves are 'seeking attention'. On the contrary, self-harm appears to be a way of dealing individually with internalised pressures and stress.
"I used to cut myself regularly. I saw professional help and am happier now and don't do it any more. I used razor-blades to cut my legs where no one could see. I wasn't about attention or anything, it was because it was the only thing I could control."
Almost two thirds who had self-harmed had been bullied at school: "I only cut my wrists because I was bullied all the time. I don't do this any more, I am happy."
Those who had self-harmed were also three times more likely than others to report having felt pressurised to take illegal drugs or have sexual intercourse: 81% of all the 16-year-olds rejected the notion that people who self-harm are mentally ill; 64% believed that self-harm could be prevented; and 83% agreed that those who self-harmed were feeling hurt inside. 'Hurt' was among the words most commonly used by those who had self-harmed to describe their reasons.
"I self-harm because of the depression and cutting myself makes me feel better. It's a relief to do it. I always feel better afterwards even though I know doing it is wrong."
There is a mass of other information in Dirk Schubotz's report, identifying relevant variables and illuminating aspects of teenage self-harm in Northern Ireland.
Its findings are important for the development of a suicide prevention strategy and for policy towards young people generally. It emphasises the sheer uselessness of punishment - whether by official or unofficial agencies - as a response to alienated, 'anti-social' behaviour.
Implicitly, it makes a powerful case for radical action to put right what we have done wrong to our young people.It also uncovers the remarkable decency of young people generally, including if not especially those feeling hurt.