September 4, 2007

SELF-HARM – 'We need to bring back the Irish mammy'

AT 6AM, Joan Freeman woke with a start. Images flashed through her head. A young teenager, holding out her arms for inspection. Crisscrossed incisions slashed into the delicate flesh from her wrist to the inside of her elbow. Some raised and white, scarred of old. Others, fresh and red and raw.


"All I could think about was that she was going to see her therapist for the first time that day, " said Freeman, the CEO of Pieta House, the centre for the prevention of selfharm and suicide.

"And I lay in bed, and wondered how I could get across to her therapist the sadness of this girl, the hurt she carried. Of course, I didn't need to. The therapist saw her arms and straight away she knew."

That girl, who had deliberately taken a blade and cut herself, was just one of hundreds and hundreds who have come looking for help at Pieta House in Lucan in Dublin since they opened their doors in January 2006.

Most of them are girls. By the time they get help, most of the girls are teenagers who started hurting themselves when they were just children, 11 or 12 years old, with a blade to their wrist.

At Pieta House, the youngest, so far, was eight.

"What we're seeing is just the tip of the iceberg, " said Freeman.

"There is no doubt about that. It's hugely unreported because it is so easy to hide. For the most part, parents just have no idea."

Contrary to the suggestion people who self-harm are 'just looking for attention', Freeman maintains most people use it as a way of coping with their emotions. "When I'm angry, I scream and roar, " she said. "For people who self-harm, they have no emotional support, for one reason or another. This is their way of coping."

Because so little research exists on the history of self-harm in Ireland, Freeman said there was no way of knowing whether there has been an increase in people self-harming, or a drop in their age profile. The most recent research, carried out by the National Suicide Research Foundation, found 12% of the teenagers surveyed had self-harmed.

However, she said the huge changes in Irish society in recent years have certainly left many children without the emotional support and sense of belonging they need.

"We need to bring back 'the Irish mammy', " she said. "The family unit in Ireland has slowly but surely been broken up. There are TVs in every room. The family home is more like a block of mini apartments, with everyone staying in their own area.

There are no family meals, no communication. Even a weekly meal on a Sunday, where everyone sits together and talks, is better than nothing."

Freeman said parents are so busy now, with their own lives and their careers, often they don't exercise control over their children. "I think parents are actually very innocent in many ways, " she said.

"They don't realise what's available on the internet that children shouldn't be reading. They don't know what their children get up to when they go out. You see 14-year-olds going to a disco, dressed up as a mini adult, and they end up having sex, " she said.

"Emotionally, a child is just not able for that. It's like a parent asking a 14-year-old to drive from Dublin to Cork. You wouldn't ask them because they're not ready."

Freeman said while Pieta House is offering a therapeutic service to help people who have begun self-harming, the key is prevention. "And the prevention is in the family. We need to bring back family life, " she said. "The children need help."


  • Your child covering their arms all the time.
  • Blood on the bedsheets.
  • Bandages in the bin or bathroom
  • A reluctance to participate in sports . . .swimming, gym, football
  • A refusal to wear shorts or shortsleeved tops during hot weather

>> Pieta House, Lucan, Co Dublin Tel: 01 601000; www. pieta. ie
>> Samaritans Tel: 1850 609090; www. samaritans. org
>> Childline Tel: Freephone 1800 666666; www. childline. ie

'It just made things easier to deal with when the pain was no longer on the inside' Testimonies from people at Pieta House and on the Irish Youth website "Sometimes I don't even know what makes me want to do it. I just get anxiousf Other times, I'll be thinking about my life . . .my mum who doesn't really want to know me. I feel really alone . . . I can't talk to anyone, so the only way I can get it out [this feeling] is to cut my arms, " Angela*, 15 "I self-harm when I'm lonely and depressed and just feel generally crap. It's normally after a confrontation with my parents. I feel lots of anger and I have a fear of pestering my family too much. But the times when I really need to speak to them is when I want to self-harm . . . but I can't talk to them then because I know if I told them it would freak them out, " Matthew*, 18 "I cut when I am feeling emotional pain, because I feel the need to physicalise it. It's almost as if by making the emotional pain physical, it helps to heal it . . . just like a cut will scab over and then heal. The physical cut is symbolic of the emotional cuts. I am very calm before I selfharm because I know I am going to feel calmer or more relaxed when I've "nished. Self-harm happens after a really bad emotional day . . . a really bad day. Days when I feel impotent emotionally and physically, " Sarah*, 35 "Although self-harm makes me feel better initially, it's always followed by shame and disappointment. Why do I do it? What would my family or friends think if they found out . . . but the feeling of release of all the crap takes over the feelings of shame, " John, 14 "I have not even tried to stop, because I know that I can't, " Liz, 29 "I have never even considered stopping self-harming . . . probably because I don't know what to do instead, " Philip, 25 "I can feel stress building up. The type of feeling when you just want to scream and scream. I need to do that but I've never done it in the healthy way. Always self-harmed.

I've been trying not to for ages but I feel like it's only a matter of time."

Anonymous "Went through a tough time in school that resulted in me using an eating disorder and self-harm to cope. My parents didn't notice. The only people who realised were my friends and I pushed them away." Anonymous "I felt so confused insidef like my insides were in shreds. One day I grabbed a knife and just took it to my arm. It just made things easier to deal with when the pain was no longer on the inside. It was now something I could see and understand." Anonymous (* NOT THE REAL NAME)