I couldn’t help but be moved by the heartbreaking story of the beautiful 14 year old girl who took her own life this week, purportedly due to the pressures of social media and life as a teenager in the twenty first century.
Her father pointedly blames Instagram, which he feels does not do enough to block the sites which openly encourage suicidal thoughts and behaviours. But it’s not just Instagram. The internet can be a dangerous and scary environment, and it’s easy to find some of the darkest sites with a few clicks of the mouse.
Social media is a modern day curse, as much as a blessing for all of us. Life is no longer private and thoughts, experiences and feelings are all subjected to scrutiny and critisism. And what criticism! The internet is so cruel! And much more so for young people who do not yet have the life skills and experience to see beyond it. Some sites purport to “help” young people with advice on the best ways to hurt themselves and end their lives, while others are full of very dangerous material, written by those whose need to spread vitriol and hatred is never ending, and is presumably a result of their own unhappiness and emptiness.
As a counsellor, I worked with a lot of young people who were experiencing the pressures of life and social media, and I can’t help thinking that young people today, are far more vulnerable than we, or our parents, ever were. Young people are hugely susceptible to daily peer pressure, bullying and exploitation, as well as the continual and incessant comparing of themselves to the idealised images they see on the internet.
The first thing to remember if you are with a young person you suspect may be self harming or having suicidal thoughts, is not to panic. Educate yourself on the subject as much as possible. Self harming may be a coping mechanism, and doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is going to imminently take their own life. Self harm usually starts as a way to release a build up of pressure from upsetting feelings. Unfortunately of course, it’s only a temporary release and unless the underlying issues are addressed, the harming behaviours will continue. Don’t be shocked, judge the young person, or shout. None of these will ease the situation. Offer unconditional assistance to make sure any cuts/wounds are kept clean and dry and offer a listening ear.
Getting a young person to start talking about their harming or suicidal thoughts is the best first step, whoever it is that they choose to talk to. Remember that worries that might not seem particularly problematic to you, may be hugely upsetting to someone else, so resist the urge to try and minimise another’s concerns. Suggesting that such problems are not worth worrying about will not help. Panicking will increase the pressure on the young person, as will being the subject of your anger or frustration.
When listening, resist interrupting and don’t assume a practical solution is what is immediately required, as it may be that the young person just wants someone to hear them.
Do try and offer independent help where possible. The young person may be too embarrassed or feel too ashamed to talk to someone they know about the thoughts and feelings they are experiencing. Try not to feel too ostracised by this, it is generally better for children and young people to talk to an independent person if one is available. Make an appointment with your GP who can advise regarding counselling (and medication if necessary).
Sometimes there are waiting lists for talking therapy so it may be worth having a look at The British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists (BACP), who are the UK’s biggest counselling network. They offer a dedicated service advertising details of qualified and experienced counsellors local to your area.
If this is not an option, there will be local youth help services available. In Hampshire, we are lucky to have the wonderful No Limits, where I started my training as a counsellor and youth worker many years ago. No Limits offers counselling, advocacy and confidential support services to young people aged 13-26 in Hampshire, but there will be other such services near you.
Try not to be judgemental. The pressures of being a teenager today are completely alien to any of us who are over 40. We have no idea what it is like to have grown up in this supermedia generation, and the fact that so many of our children are suffering anxiety, depression and self harm is carrying a very clear message that something is very wrong indeed.
Gently try and encourage them to express their feelings and don’t show shock or disapproval if they share things with you that you were not expecting. Very importantly, do not make them feel guilty about their issues or the effect it is having on you, or the rest of the family. Let the young person know that you want to listen and hear how they are feeling, whenever they feel ready and able to talk. Never ever give a young person an ultimatum such as ‘You will have to leave if you don’t stop this behaviour.’ This will not work and will make the situation worse as you become part of the problem, not the solution. Realise that this situation is not going to get fixed over night. Often these issues take months to work themselves out, and what young people need is unconditional support, not pressurised timescales.
There is no harm in suggesting temporary distractions, like going for a run, or a trip to the cinema or the shops. But make sure the young person knows that you are offering this as a distraction not an expected cure all.
Sometimes the days and weeks ahead seem overwhelming, so try and encourage just thinking about the next 24 hours. Suggest Mindfulness as a tool for keeping calm, and join the young person in its practice. If panic is an issue, ask the young person to identify something that they can see, touch, taste, hear and smell. Concentrating on these, instead of overwhelming panicky thoughts, can bring perspective.
Where possible, encourage self help, anything to make the young person feel empowered and in charge of any possible solutions. Well meaning helpers who take over and try and fix the situation will only leave the young person feeling powerless and unconnected to any recovery plans, which are then, unsurprisingly, bound to fail. Offer practical as well as emotional support, and consider a strategy for the days ahead. Writing everything down in a journal works for some. Others find comfort in their music or art, or listening to podcasts. Allowing and encouraging expression in whatever form, is very positive.
Whatever you do, when supporting a young person, try and refrain from overreacting and getting upset yourself. This will make the young person feel even worse. Encourage the notion that you are strong enough to support them and you will be there with them through this journey. Whatever happens, don’t despair. Although 10% of young people will self harm at some stage, most work through their issues and come out stronger and more resilient. Get outside help where you can, and very importantly, make sure you also look after yourself. It is impossible to support another 24/7, so make sure you get breaks and have others around to support you.
See below for details of support services in the UK.
The following services can offer support in the UK.
Papyrus (Prevention of Young Suicide)
- Confidential advice and support for young people who feel suicidal.
- HOPELineUK: 0800 068 41 41
- Email: email@example.com
- If you’re in distress and need support, you can ring Samaritans for free at any time of the day or night.
- Freephone (UK and Republic of Ireland): 116 123 (24 hours)
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably)
- Offers support to young men in the UK who are down or in a crisis.
- Helpline: 0800 58 58 58 (Daily 17:00-midnight)
- For under 25’s. Talk to The Mix for free on the phone, by email or on their webchat. You can also use their phone counselling service, or get more information on support services you might need.
- Freephone: 0808 808 4994 (13:00-23:00 daily)