Self-harm & the NHS

I heard on the news today that the number of young people admitted to hospital after harming themselves has doubled in Scotland within the last 5 years. Interestingly enough the articles stating it and the news anchors talking about it made it an almost laboured point that “This doesn’t mean that more children are harming themselves. It may mean that more young people feel comfortable asking for help.” As if it would be atrocious to think that mental health issues with young people are getting worse and it’s purely down to it being more documented and people more comfortable talking about it. As if the message was “Don’t worry, the increasing numbers of children hurting themselves badly enough to need hospital assistance actually means we’re doing our jobs in recognising mental health issues in adolescents.”

As a young person who has been in hospital for her self harm, that idea is almost insulting.

(If you haven’t noticed yet, this is yet another blog post that is a thinly veiled rant. Please feel free to stop reading here if that is not of interest to you.)

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I’d like to tell you a story. It was a Wednesday in the late summer of 2012. I know it was a Wednesday because my parents and sister were out at a weekly dinner they attended with family friends. I was getting ready to go out to the pub quiz with my friends and my phone went. It was a text from my then-boyfriend breaking up with me. For some background to this, at this time it was less than a year since I had been diagnosed with depression, I was on medication and receiving counselling once a week and I had been self harming regularly for almost as long as I’d been diagnosed. This boyfriend had previously broken up with me and begged me to get back together with him twice before this instance and I was ill and I thought that I needed someone in that capacity in my life. This text said “It feels weird, us together. We’re better as friends.”

I don’t remember what happens after that. My next memory is telling the 999 operator that I was home alone, I was covered in blood and I wanted to kill myself and I didn’t know what to do. They sent an ambulance instantly. The paramedics were some of the most understanding people I’ve met in my life. Unfortunately, that’s where my positive experiences with the NHS emergency services regarding mental health stop. I won’t tell you how long I waited before I was seen because for I don’t know. I don’t remember. What I do remember is when I eventually got seen, my only feelings were that of “I wish I’d not phoned for help.” I wasn’t allowed my mother to stay with me in the room because the doctor wanted to ask me “sensitive” questions. Apparently that’s code for “I don’t want witnesses to hear what I’m about to say.” Because the doctor told me that I was a drain on the NHS and that I wasn’t an emergency and it clearly wasn’t an accident so I had no right to ring 999. All this before he looked at my arm. When he eventually looked at it he said, very condescendingly, “What do you expect me to do about this? Do you want a plaster?” By this time my mother (a nurse) was allowed back in the room and I remember her saying “Oh, that looks deep. It might need a paper stitch at least.”  I didn’t get that. I got a dressing and sent on my way with the most random pieces of advice I’ve ever been given in regards to my mental health and that was “Don’t drink caffeine after 12pm.” Thanks, doctor. I’m sure it’s the caffeine that made me want to cease to exist.

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I’d hope my experience was the anomaly, but it’s not. I’ve spoken to countless people who’ve been told similar things due to their own self harm or in some cases, suicide attempts.

If the rates of young people being admitted to hospital for self harm is increasing at such a rate, that’s not young people feeling more comfortable talking about it or getting help. That’s more young people significantly harming themselves than before. We pat ourselves on the back and say “Aren’t we doing well with our progress with mental health?” The progress isn’t fast enough. The stigma is still too deep set. I’ve been told to stop talking before now because my topic of conversation wasn’t something to be discussed in a public forum. If this isn’t the wake up call we need, I don’t know what it’s going to take.

We have increasing numbers of children opening their flesh, bruising themselves, branding themselves, mutilating themselves and we call it ‘progress’ because obviously the increased numbers mean more people are comfortable asking for help rather than more people turning to self harm due to mental ill health. And those figures we have are only the ones hurt so badly that they require medical assistance. I’d bet the actual number is worse than we’d ever like to imagine.

Adolescents with mental health problems are going to become more and more prevalent and will go unnoticed if we continue to assume that the rise in documented cases is purely due to people feeling comfortable asking for help.

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