14 August 2019

Coping with self-harm – a guide for parents and carers

Coping with self-harm – a guide for parents and carers

Orygen, the National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, has developed a practical guide for parents and carers to cope with loved ones’ self-harm.

As many as 10% of young Australians will self-harm at some point in their lives but parents and carers often feel alone when they discover that a loved one is intentionally hurting themselves.

Melbourne mother Freya* said she would never forget the day she found out her daughter was self-harming.

“I was overwhelmed. I went into an intense state of grief and I felt like an absolute deer in the headlights – I didn’t know where to turn, what to do, how to talk to her,” Freya said.

A new Orygen resource, Coping with self-harm – a guide for parents and carers, provides practical information on supporting a young person who is self-harming, managing their injuries, implementing coping strategies, and where to go for help.

Orygen’s head of suicide prevention research, Associate Professor Jo Robinson, led the team that developed the resource. The guide’s ultimate aim was to improve outcomes for young people, she said.

“Parents and carers are a key source of support for young people, so it’s important that they feel empowered and knowledgeable,” Associate Professor Robinson said. “By supporting parents and carers this guide addresses a real unmet need.”

The resource was developed from a guide originally produced by researchers at the Centre for Suicide Research, University of Oxford, England. It was adapted for an Australian audience following extensive consultation between Orygen’s researchers, young people and their parents and carers.

Freya said guide was accessible and empowering.

“It’s not full of jargon, it’s normalising and it has lots of practical bite-sized tips, including alternatives to self-harm that you can suggest,” Freya said.

“Having those tools would have been very helpful to show my daughter that I wasn’t judging her – that I understood that self-harm was an expression of her distress.”

One parent involved in the co-development of the resource noted that when it comes to self-harm: “not only does the child need support and counselling, I think the parent needs support and counselling so that we can understand more of what's going on and we get strategies to help ourselves, to help our children”.

The guide offers practical ways for parents and carers to look after themselves, and stresses that they should not blame themselves. The reasons for self-harm and what makes a young person vulnerable to self-harm are outlined.

Nic Juniper, who was 14 when they started self-harming, said the new guide would help parents and carers have respectful and helpful conversations.

“Self-harm is not an easy thing to talk about with the people you love – it hurts quite a lot to feel like you might be hurting them,” Nic said.

“But it was a lot easier for me to talk about my experiences and feelings once some of those initial conversations had been had.”

Nic said they were now in a “better place” thanks to hard work and family support.

“For me self-harm was an outlet because I was trying to cope with growing up and my own identity,” Nic said.

“But there is still hope out there – it just takes a bit of time and a lot of work, energy and support to come through the other side.”

Orygen received University of Oxford permission to adapt the guide for an Australian audience. The adaptation was completed with funding from the WA Primary Health Alliance through the Australian Government PHN Program, Future Generations Global Trust and The William Buckland Foundation.

* Surname withheld.