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4 things you need to know when you've been diagnosed with a mental health problem

The article below was written by Mike Jones, a fighter against mental illness stigma. By creating www.schizlife.com, he hopes to shed some light on the symptoms of schizophrenia, how to help someone dealing with it, as well as the stereotypes surrounding this disorder.

A diagnosis of a mental health problem can feel like a ton of bricks has just come pounding down around you. Things might feel overwhelming, almost as if the world is spinning out of control. You might be wondering if things will ever get better. Don't worry, all of this is completely normal. The most important thing to remember is that you really are in control of your life.

1.    You are not the only one and your mental health problem does not define you

When you look around, it might seem as if you're the only person dealing with something this difficult. You couldn't be more mistaken. One out of every ten children faces a similar battle. Demi Lovato, Angelina Jolie, Russel Brand, and Kristin Bell have all struggled with mental health issues. It's simply more common than you think. Just because you don't hear your friends talking about it doesn't mean they aren't grappling with their own mental health difficulties.

You're a complex person with unique talents, likes, dislikes, and tastes. Maybe you're creative, a great friend, or an amazing artist. Do you despise tomatoes, love pasta, and adore dogs? Whoever you are, you already were, before learning of your mental health diagnosis. Your gifts and talents are still there. And whatever you love to hate, is too! Your mental illness is just as much a part of you as your gifts, talents, and pet peeves. All of these things together create the amazing person you are, but no single one defines you. Your mental illness is not who you are.

2.    Knowing your diagnosis gives you power

A mental health diagnosis names the thoughts and behaviors that have been getting in the way of your goals and dreams. Now you have the opportunity to take control of your life. Knowledge is power. With your diagnosis, you have access to important information and resources that will allow you to determine how to face the obstacles created by your mental health.

You're in the driver's seat now. You get to choose how to address this challenge. On the Be Vocal website, Demi Lovato describes her feelings and the actions she took after finding out about her mental illness. "Getting a diagnosis was kind of a relief. It helped me start to make sense of the harmful things I was doing to cope with what I was experiencing. Now I had no choice but to move forward and learn how to live with it, so I worked with my health care professional and tried different treatment plans until I found what works for me." That worked out pretty well for her!

3.    What other people think is not your problem

Having a strong social support network is extremely important when it comes to managing your mental health problem. Don't allow the stigma associated with mental health to convince you to accept a sense of shame and stop reaching out to people. Take responsibility for your own sense of safety. You decide who to talk to, how much to disclose, and under what circumstances.

A random individual's inability to behave rationally says nothing about you and a great deal about them. Understand that your judgement in these matters will never be perfect. That's part of the learning process. Over time it will become easier and you'll get better at learning who to trust, how much to disclose, and under what circumstances you feel comfortable discussing things that make you vulnerable. But never stop building your tribe.

4.    You still get to decide who you want to be

Part of growing up, even for teens without mental health struggles, is figuring out how to exist as a unique individual in this world. What kind of person do you want to be? What footprint do you want to leave? Do you want to be someone who lives in fear? Or do you want to rise to the challenge of honoring the entirety of who you are? Do you have the courage to refuse to allow others to treat you in ways lacking in courtesy and respect? Do you know how to set limits while still remaining faithful to your own values?

Dealing with a diagnosis of mental illness forces you to consciously address these questions now instead of later. This gives you an opportunity to walk consciously and with grace into adulthood. Your diagnosis has given you the chance to begin asking and answering the questions that give a life meaning. Find your answers and then systematically implement them in the way you structure your days.

You always have choices. Always. Mental illness does not take away your power. Don't let anyone tell you that it does. You are strong enough to manage this. Ask questions, reach out, make decisions, and shape your own life. How are you going to face this? What's your plan of action? What steps are you going to take to soften the sharp and painful edges of the symptoms of your mental illness so that you stay on top of its ups and downs? No one is saying that this will be easy. But it absolutely can be done.

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Letter to January 2016 Me

Whilst Sophie was part of the Graduate Volunteer scheme at Youthscape, she worked closely with the SelfharmUK team. The blog post below is something Sophie found extremely helpful to write as it's helped her to reflect on her year and to think positively about the year ahead. Sophie continues to write blogs for us even though her time as a volunteer has come to an end. She hopes you find this blog helpful.

Christmas is almost here, and with that, the end of 2016. I’m sure there are many mixed feelings out there about this, and I am one of those people with mixed feelings! When I reflect on my year, I feel as though so much has happened, both good and bad, but I don’t have an immediate “2016, wow what a great/bad year” reaction. Recently, a friend told me about a letter she had written to her younger self, and I thought it would be the perfect way to help me reflect on my year and encourage myself for the year ahead. Maybe it’s something you could try?

So here goes:

Hi Soph,

Future you here (it’s currently December 2016). 2016 is going to be an interesting one, it’s going to have highs and lows, but don’t worry, it looks like it will end on a high.

I know you’ve just come off your medication, and I’m not going to lie, it’s going to be a tough few months, but I promise you; your body WILL adjust, so bear with it. Yes, at some points during the year you’ll slip back into self-harm, anxiety will get the better of you every now and then, some ‘sucky’ things happen, and at times life is going to feel pretty overwhelming. BUT, good news! As horrid as it may be, those times don’t last.

You grow so much this year, Soph. You FINALLY start making decisions that are looking out for your own wellbeing rather than based on making other people happy, how great is that?? I won’t tell you what these decisions are, but just go with your gut and know it’s okay to look after yourself. Oh and remember, admitting you need a bit of help again doesn’t mean you’re back to square one.

You know this already, but you have some really amazing people in your life who are totally going to be there for you – try to not feel guilty or ashamed to reach out to them if you need it – they HONESTLY don’t mind and only want the best for you. And be honest, Soph, I know being vulnerable can be scary, but opening up to these people is so safe.

You’ll start worrying about what to do job-wise after July, and then you’ll freak out about not having a job. Again, things work out; don’t put a load of unnecessary pressure on yourself. You don’t need to try and live up to the expectations of other people, this is YOUR life, and you need to do what’s best for you.

Spoiler Alert! You voluntarily say you’ll get up on stage and talk to 100+ people, AND you actually go through with it… AND it goes pretty well! Who would have thought it!?

2016 will be okay, but here’s a little peak at what I’ll try to remember and take into 2017 with me:

  • You are SO loved
  • You are SO blessed. Even when life is tough, keep what you’re thankful for close to your heart.
  • It’s okay to ask for help
  • Fight the fear
  • Being vulnerable is not weak, it shows strength and courage
  • Keep writing down what goes on in your head; it’s a great way to get it out!
  • Keep your chin up girl, you can do this!

Love, almost-2017-Soph

If you were to write a letter to yourself this year, what would you say? How would you encourage yourself for 2017?

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How Zayn’s pain helps us to think differently about eating disorders

One Direction: the biggest boy band on the planet; the one with all the screaming fans and everyone wondering about their every move. People will often assume these pop stars and many others in the public eye have a perfect, pain-free life. We might think, if I could have one day in their life, all my problems would seem to disappear.

This week Zayn Malik released his book, “Zayn”. It offers an insight into what he describes as the darkest and most difficult times of his life. It’s even refreshing to hear that sentence isn’t it? Don’t get me wrong – I would not wish dark and difficult times on anyone, but I think that sentence causes us to take a step back and realise that those times come to and are felt by everyone.

Zayn openly expresses in his book that during the last few months of One Direction he had an eating disorder. He says this:

“I think it was about control. I didn’t feel like I had control over anything else in my life, but food was something I could control, so I did, I had lost so much weight I had become ill. The workload and the pace of life on the road put together with the pressures and strains of everything going on within the band had badly affected my eating habits.” (Taken from Zayn Malik’s autobiography Zayn 2016)

There can be many reasons why people can develop eating disorders, and most of us instantly assume it is about being thin. While this can sometimes be the case, as Zayn so eloquently points out one big reason can be about gaining some control.

The online resource Eating Disorder Hope talks about anxiety and control linked to eating disorders:

"Often, it is the case that anxiety precedes an eating disorder. In struggling with severe anxiety, for instance, being able to control the aspect of one’s life, such as food, weight, and exercise, indirectly gives the suffer a false sense of control, which can temporarily relieve symptoms experienced due to anxiety." (Taken from Eating Disorder Hope website 2016)  

Zayn has also spoken in depth before about his own anxiety and how he has at times been unable to go on stage due to feelings of overwhelming panic. This is actually one reason he gave when he left the band back in March 2015. Popular vlogger Zoella has also created a fantastic video about her own panic attacks and anxiety, you can see it here

I think it is important for us to try to realise a couple of things from stories like Zayn’s. Firstly, we must remember that all people – whoever they are and whatever they do for a living – feel, live and experience pain. Secondly we should be challenged to think about our own recovery, so ask yourself:

What are the things that are causing you to try to gain some control?
How does controlling food help to make things better?
What things may need to change in order for the need to control to fade?

From there you can begin, as Zayn did, to find a place of freedom. 

SelfharmUK eating disorder resources can be found here

A Parents guide to eating disorders can be found here

B-eat are another eating disorder charity that are there to help you 

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Recovery from Depression in a Spiritual Community

Oliver shares with us some of their own journey around finding peace with their mental health and identity. This is a personal story of transformation and whilst none of this may ring true for you, Oliver challenges us to think about our own recovery and how community and the support of others can bring about the change that we need in our own lives to heal. SelfharmUK is for those from all backgrounds and faith groups, this story is personal and in our sharing of this article our only hope is that you are challenged to find a community that works for you. 

I grew up a pastors’ daughter on the outskirts of Birmingham, attending church religiously, so to speak, every Sunday. I enjoyed running around with my best friend Laura – who was also the daughter of a pastor – as opposed to actually participating in the service, although I did have a handful of favourite hymns which I would frequently request my father to play each week. Another highlight of mine was the continuous handfuls of candy I would convince the elderly churchgoers to give me; I had a particularly convincing smile.

My love of attending church came to an end gradually as I got older. Running around was no longer acceptable and my convincing smile had slowly withered away. I began losing interest and after 10 years of working in the same job my dad resigned as head of the church. We moved out of the vicarage and began attending a different church slightly further away – I still don’t know for certain why we stopped attending our original place of worship, although I have the suspicion tensions were high after we left and perhaps some attendees of the church saw us leaving as giving up on our faith.

As a family we began a new leg of our worship at a church run by very close friends. A new start had sparked my interest once again, however a decline in my mental health had meant that burst of intrigue didn’t last exceptionally long. As depression sank in I started to find every aspect of my life mundane and uninteresting, including spiritually. By this time I was 11 and had stopped attending church altogether. Not particularly long after this I became isolated and also began to self-harm.

Child & Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) took me on as a patient in the year 2012 due to my mums’ persistence to get me medical help – which was predominantly driven by her faith, words of solidarity she took from the Bible, and the network my parents had built up around them over many years of hard work within the Christian community. I received frequent therapy sessions plus plenty of support from friends and family, but their efforts went unnoticed and I continued to deteriorate. My self-harm persisted, I attempted suicide and was starving myself.

After receiving several diagnoses including depression, anxiety, suicidal tendencies and EDNOS (Eating Disoders Not Otherwise Specified), I was hospitalised on the 29th of May 2013, after being in and out of A&E several times. I vividly remember my mother getting the call the night before, stating that a bed had been made available and that I would be a full-time in patient by the next day.

The 8am drive to the hospital was bleak, literally and emotionally. There was a light drizzle of rain and the fog had begun to stagnate, as if it would never lift. To say there was an air of pathetic fallacy that morning is a gross understatement. Along with the macabre shadow following me around, I too felt an absence of God, in all its forms. An absence of communal support. An absence of faith. These things shaped my childhood and now had dwindled away. It felt as if the life I was living were completely separate from my younger self. All trace of who I used to be had been destroyed in the face of depression, also dragging with it a previously overwhelming sense of trust in my parents and love for my religious community.

Those 8 months in hospital were the centre point of one of the most transformative times in my life, and still today impacts who I am greatly – luckily for me the treatment was a success for the most part and it sculpted me in a positive manner.

I was eventually discharged on the 13th of December 2013, yet there was still a long road of healing ahead. I was put under the home visiting team working for CAMHS who, for the first few weeks, would visit my house each day to not only monitor my weight and blood pressure, but also my scars, if there were any new ones, and how my emotional stability was faring.

No interest in the spiritual life had showed itself again as of yet, for all my energy and time was being spent on merely trying to function once more in a society I had been isolated from for the best part of a year. This remained the case for some time and while a lot of progress was being made in the realm of my mental health, my spiritual health continued to be malnourished and uninspired. (Also during this time I came out as genderqueer, otherwise known by its more socially acceptable term of ‘non-binary’, which also aided in my positive progression with my mental health. I would go into this further but I feel it would best to leave it for its own article).

It wasn’t until the dawn of 2016 that I set about exploring afresh the religious aspect of my life – or lack of, for that matter. This led me to exploring Buddhism more in-depth, and took me to my local Triratna Buddhist centre. Entering the building I felt something which had been absent for most of my life; a spiritual community in which I had a place. A spiritually stimulating community where my gender expression and sexuality did not deem me unworthy, but where my actions and the peace or hatred I contributed to the world defined me. From then on I attended the centre every Thursday evening where groups of up to 60 people would meditate and have discussions on different Buddhist teachings.

I began attending the centre in May this year, and by July I had been discharged from CAMHS after being a patient of theirs for 4 years. The absence of CAMHS threw me off kilter very briefly for a few weeks, which resulted in me taking that time off from the Buddhist centre to fully assess the direction I wanted my religious practice to go in. As I am writing this it is getting towards the end of September and I have been attending the centre again since the beginning of this month and now I can truly see how deprived and dissatisfactory my life is without Buddhism.

I feel I can truly now comprehend the importance of a spiritual or religious community in aiding positive mental states.

On that note I feel it is time to bring this article to a close, but not quite yet. I would like to leave you with a warning not to take my words from a subjective viewpoint and believe I am saying that Buddhism is the only way to connect spiritually. Buddhism is not the only way, and that is definitely not the message I would like people to take from this. We all connect to various communities differently, and what I am trying to project as best I can, is that we should not give up on finding the right place for us if the first one does not work out how we would have liked. There is a place for everyone to find religious inspiration and encouragement, we just have to find it. This is my attempt at motivating you to find it.

Oliver Fitzsimmons, aged 16

Image courtersy of Jubair1985

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Living free living as me

In this article SelfharmUK Project Manager Ruth Ayres sits down to talk to Oliver and Lewis about their gender identity and self-harm

SHUK: Oliver, what age did you begin self-harming?

O: I started at 11 years old, I have always struggled with talking about my emotions and I remember the exact moment my eating disorder started. I was in Paris on a school trip and my boyfriend at the time was talking to a friend and said my thighs were really fat. I look back now astonished, I was a size 10 at the time. I was nowhere near fat. But that comment had a huge effect on me. I can remember everything about that moment, from what I was wearing to the exact place we were in Paris.    

SHUK: How did you self-harm?

O: Lots of different ways, I was diagnosed with an eating disorder when I was 12, this was a lot to do with stopping my body from developing as a girl. I didn’t want that to happen. I was hospitalised for 8 months, from May to December 2013. I was force fed in that time. Not by way of a tube, but I was told, I could eat a meal or drink a high calorie drink, which I have to say tasted disgusting. I picked the drink though, because at the time the thought of chewing was awful for me.

SHUK: Really why so?

O: I don’t know; I just couldn’t cope with it.

SHUK: Were you self-harming in other ways?

O: Yeah I was cutting and I tried to take my own life, on 2 occasions.  

SHUK: Jo, (Oliver’s mum) how was it for you when you first realised Oliver was self-harming?

J: Awful, I felt like a massive failure and I was constantly asking the question why couldn’t Oliver talk to us about their feelings. Given all the jobs I have done, often in counselling and supporting young people, I felt like I had massively let Oliver down. I had to however begin to think about how we as a family helped Oliver to get better. 

SHUK: What did you want to do?

J: A combination of wrap Oliver up in cotton wool and scream at the whole world. I wanted to stop them self-harming and essentially make everything better.

SHUK: Did you at this stage have any idea why?

J: Not at all, Oliver had struggled with their transition to high school and we as parents assumed that this was the reason for their self-harm.

SHUK: Oliver, can you talk to me about your gender identity?

O: I feel totally fluid in my gender at the moment, and I am not sure if I want to fully transition my body from female to male. I am living life as me, non-defined by my gender. I would describe myself as Agender – living without gender rather than transgender.

SHUK: Do you think your self-harm was linked to your gender identity?

O: Yes; I felt a huge lack of community and acceptance, community is really important and I now feel a huge sense of belonging to the queer community (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender). There is a total lack of education around gender identity and we are still seen as outcasts I guess. I mean just recently 50 people were killed in Orlando, in place where they should have been safe. I think people who are exploring gender identity feel unable to come out for fear of not being accepted and loved, or killed. My self-harm was about controlling my emotions that I didn’t understand or couldn’t talk about, these emotions were linked to my gender identity.

Oliver and I had a long discussion about where they were now and they were able to express very freely the peace they now feel as a result of being agender. Oliver was clear with me that there needed to be more education around being agender, and they became incredibly passionate about the fact that people had died and the world needed educating. However, what is totally evident and what they do know is that they feel more comfortable in their own skin than ever before. They feel much more confident in expressing themselves. Oliver feels there is a sense of them being able to understand themselves and not conforming.

SHUK asked Jo what advice she would give to parents if their child is self-harming?

J: Don’t panic, talk to someone outside of the family for support and try in a very gentle non- threatening way to open up conversations with your children about self-harm.   

SHUK: Oliver, if you could go back 12 months what advice would you give yourself?

O: I would tell myself to not try and run away from my community and I would tell myself to accept that this is who I am. I would try not to be anything other than myself. I would also remind myself that being queer is empowering, not strange. It is an escape from a heteronormative society, which is something I’ve always searched for, and that one day I will finally be free to be as queer and loud as I want.

Since coming out Oliver has not self-harmed for 18 months and is doing extremely well, it is obvious from my time with them that they are at peace. Oliver is able to speak honestly and freely about who they are and I have to say they are a very inspiring person to be around.

 

Lewis Hancox is YouTube vlogger and up and coming comedy writer, with many exciting things in the firing line, he also happens to be transgender. Lewis took part in a channel 4 programme in 2011 called My Transsexual Summer, which followed 7 people at different stages of their transition. Lewis has now completed his surgery and feels far more at peace than ever living life as a man. Lewis has always identified as a heterosexual male and for him the loneliness of living as a girl was incredibly tough.

Lewis gave me some of his time over coffee one afternoon and I was able to ask him a few questions about transgender young people, suicide and self-harm. Here is what he had to say.  

SHUK: Was self-harm anything that ever you struggled with, by this I mean any area of self-harm from cutting to self-poisoning to eating disorders?

L: Well actually I was going to answer no then, but I guess you’re right, eating disorders are part of self-harm. I developed an eating disorder when I was in high school and this was due to the changes I was seeing in my body, I was desperate to not go through puberty as a girl and wanted to stop the development of my body parts as much as possible. I was diagnosed with anorexia and I knew there was something else underlying this. If I’d have known about being transgender back then this would have definitely helped, I would have felt like there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

SHUK: Were you ever hospitalised?

L: Yeah I was, due to my periods stopping they needed to be sure that my vital organs were not shutting down. I was in for a night, they ran some tests and I was discharged. I was then referred to a counsellor.

SHUK: How can we help transgender young people around self-harm?

L: I think education on the subject is the key, when I saw my counsellor after being discharged form hospital my mum mentioned to her that when I was younger I never wanted to wear girls; clothes or be called “she”. The counsellor dismissed this and said “oh no that’s nothing, lots of young children feel that way.” She put my eating disorder down to my parents splitting up. I know that if I’d have had the space to talk about my confusion around my gender it would have been different. It’s about people being educated, especially professionals.

SHUK: Why do you think self-harm and suicide is such a massive issue in the Trans community?

L: I think there is a few reasons really, I think that people feel isolated and unaccepted and even when they have come to terms with being trans themselves they often feel isolated and rejected by their family and friends, who perhaps don’t understand. I also think a huge issue is the waiting times for people to have access to testosterone and surgery. I was rejected for my surgery in St. Helens and I waited two years for testosterone. This means that even when people have made their peace with being trans, they still feel out of control while they wait for the right support to start their transition. Self-harm is something that they can control and I think this is why it is such a big issue. I have trans friends who have self-harmed and also attempted to take their own life.

SHUK: If you could go back to in time to your younger self, what would you say?

L: I would reassure myself that I am going to live a perfectly happy life once I have transitioned and that my body isn’t the be all and end all. I would tell myself to not put my life on hold and focus on my ambitions and things that I can work towards. I feel like I lost a good few years of my life when all I could focus on was my transition and I guess a part of me regrets that now.

 

Gender continues to be a complex, challenging and difficult subject for many young people, gender identity is a concept that needs to be talked about, celebrated and accepted.

“The secret of change is to focus all your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” Socrates 

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