How young people are turning to the Internet for help
A statistic released by the Samaritans claims that one in five students in the UK is a self-harmer. Why is it that so many students are turning to harming themselves, and what help is there out there for them? I took a closer look at the controversial Internet sites where self-harmers can gather and discuss what they all have in common; they all hurt themselves.
Sam was 15 when he first started to self-injure, now 21 and recovered, he is the founder of Equilibrium, an online support community where members can exchange information about how to get help: “Our main target is really to help people get their self-harm and other problems under control and raise awareness of something that is still, in this day and age, a taboo subject.”
For many self-injurers, half the battle is being understood, as there are many misconceptions about self-harm. Explained on Equilibriums website as; ‘the act of physically hurting yourself on purpose without the intent of committing suicide’, it can vary from cutting and burning to taking over-doses. Sam explained; “It is a tricky subject because virtually anything can be self-harm if you are doing it with the intent to harm yourself…There are a lot of misconceptions that people who Self-harm like pain, are trying to kill themselves or that they hate themselves… It’s not self harm that is the problem, it's what they are going through…it’s a coping mechanism which I don’t think is understood well enough.”
Equilibrium was set up two years ago after Sam, whose username is Valiant, decided that he needed to get his own self-injurious behaviour under control and he feared it would take over his life. He logged onto the internet for help; “I was surprised at the lack of information and what information there was, was spread out all over the internet… and I just thought ‘you know what? I can do better’.” So with a friend, he made a pilot film titled ‘Hate Me Now’ for the site setting out their plans and sent it off to the Camelot Foundation 4Front Awards where they won a £3000 grant to help set up the project.
Equilibrium describes itself as ‘a unique award winning user-led self-harm awareness organisation designed to help educate and support people who self-harm and their family and friends’. Away from the Internet they have held events, usually focused around March 1st, which is known as National Self-Harm Awareness Day. Their last event was Europe’s biggest Awareness event of the sort.
The forum currently has 881 users, this number grows every day. One of the regular users of the forums is 23-year-old ‘Little_Lotte’, who has been a member since the beginning of February. “I was getting to the point where Self-Harm was effecting my relationship with my boyfriend and I needed some help/someone to talk to and as the waiting list at the doctors is so long, I needed help NOW, Equilibrium was the best place for me to be”. She is currently on medication and has been on the waiting list for psychotherapy for the past year and a half, “I come on here to vent my feelings rather than Self-harming and I’ve had some really good advice to problems/concerns I’ve had. People on here make me feel good about myself.”
Many people believe that there has been a sudden increase in the numbers of people taking to harming themselves as a way of coping. But when asked, Sam responded “I don’t think it is just students that are turning to self-harm, I think it is more because students tend to be more open about things…and so reveal that they self-harm.” Forum member ‘Snowdrift’ also reflected this in her response; “I think the same amount always did, just more people are becoming ‘open’ about it”. So is it really, that there has been a dramatic increase in the numbers of people hurting themselves? Or is it just that people are speaking out about it more?
In May 2005, athlete Kelly Holmes spoke out of her own experience with self-harm after she suffered a damaged calf and tissue strain injury that left her unable to run. She was quoted on the BBC website as saying, "I made one cut for every day I'd been injured. With each one I felt I was punishing myself but at the same time I felt a sense of release that drove me to do it again and again.” More and more celebrities are ‘coming out’ about their own experiences of self-harm, including Christina Ricci, Johnny Depp and even Princess Diana. When asked if this was beneficial to creating awareness of self-injury Sam responded, “It has always been associated with the gothic subculture but now I think that the general population sees that ‘oh it's not just teenage girls that do it’. It may make them a bit more aware that it is a real problem; it needs to be dealt with and taken seriously.”
But Sam expressed fears that it could also be damaging, “I’ve seen self-harm websites that mention things like stars who might have self-harmed and I think it is almost creating publicity in a sense, and I don’t agree with that text going out because it is almost trying to make it look cool.” It has been said, that a small number of self-harmers have started through observational learning, seeing someone else who have done it, so it is no wonder, that there is a fear that more people will develop this dangerous method of coping after seeing people they aspire to that do it too.
The importance of the meet-ups between the forums members of the site was clear to Equilibriums committee members, and they hope that in the future they can arrange weekly meets to build up the confidence of otherwise, withdrawn members. Sam spoke of his own experiences, where he would meet up with friends who had dealt with depression over a coffee and have a chat. Not always about what he was dealing with, but general chat as well; “I knew that, slowly, it was helping me feel comfortable with myself to start going out in public and it helped me personally so I feel that other members will get the same benefit.”
The on-going work of Equilibrium is to help raise awareness of self-injury, and too continue to provide support for the ever-growing numbers on the forum. Sam said, “I think that most colleges or educational establishments, and GPs, should have a better understanding of what self-harm is… If people had someone they could go and talk too about it that would help the majority of students to get through it.”
The work Equilibrium does seems to be benefiting the members of the forums, giving them a place where they can feel safe to talk about what they are going through and speak to others who can relate. While Equilibrium ensures that advice given is sound, even having psychologists as members of the board, there are many other self-injury websites and forums that do not. While Equilibrium is doing it's best to help it's members, other websites are creating a negative perception of support forums. Something that Equilibrium will have to battle against to continue their successful work.
Media Practice and Theory Student
The University of Sussex
[05 Dec 2005]