Over the last few years, I’ve slowly become more aware of self-harming and the issues surrounding it. The kids who pull their hair out. Parents in the playground anxiously telling me their daughters have starting cutting themselves. Is this normal? Will she be okay? What should I do? Teenagers, girls, boys, adults. Those who cut out of despair; those who try it because a friend told them it would make them feel good. And even so, last week’s headlines have shocked me. Nearly one-quarter of all 14-year-old girls have self-harmed - that’s one in four of the girls I meet every week. Then there are all the others: boys, teens, younger kids, mums, dads… I have become adept at spotting small scars and hearing confidential whispers: ‘he’s cutting himself, but he doesn’t want anyone to know’.
I imagine that for a parent, discovering that your child is self-harming must be devastating. But God’s design is that parents shouldn’t parent alone, but within the supportive community of the church. So how can we as churches help?
Respond with a generous heart
Listen and really hear. Love, don’t judge. Don’t minimise, don’t overreact. Be there for the long haul. There are still such stigmas around mental health that many parents may feel ashamed, guilty or a failure if their child is self-harming. In a church community parents might feel especially isolated, believing that everyone else has brought up their kids okay or that they have failed as Christian parents. Articles such as this one from Lucy Dimbylow can be helpful for parents.
Encourage people to seek professional help, such as the school counsellor or the GP
There is a lot of good guidance online about where to get help, as well as help to understand what self-harm is and why it affects young people – for example, from The Children’s Society, SelfharmUK, The Mix, and Young Minds – advice for young people and their parents. The NHS has a comprehensive list of mental health helplines here.
Start talking about mental health
Many young people’s experience of self-harm is that they are ashamed, scared and fearful of being rejected if anyone finds out, and don’t know how to change. Christian children may feel extra pressure – thinking God may not love them, or they have failed him or the church. But what about if we started talking about mental health as if it was – as it really is – a normal part of life, like any other illness?
Sharing and telling stories of our own struggles and journeys with mental health would give young people new insights into their own experiences as well as hope that things can change - and maybe the courage to start a conversation. There are a lot of resources out there, from the excellent Koko website from the Girls’ Brigade, to comprehensive guides for churches actively seeking to become places of hope and inspiration for those struggling with their mental health: for example the Mental Health Access Pack from the Mind and Soul Foundation, or advice and resources from Livability. Many churches offer safe spaces for people with mental health conditions to meet; this could include groups for young people, as this blog describes. SelfharmUK also offers an online course for young people called Alumina to offer support and ideas to help, which includes resources for youth leaders supporting young people who self harm.
Be communities that support the whole person
There is a substantial body of research that shows that if you have a real and practising faith, your health – and specifically your mental health – will benefit (here's one example). Part of the reason for that is that being part of a community is – well, how God designed us to live. The Children’s Society has produced a leaflet for parents called ‘How to support your child’s well-being’ which lists five key things that make a difference for children’s well-being – connection, being active, being creative and playing, learning out of school, and widening our environment and experiences. It would be worth looking at what you offer to see how you might be able to support families in these areas. How can your church become a community that families want to belong to? When you get together, what helps people laugh, talk and make connections?
Speak out God’s truth
Last year I listened to a man called John Mark Comer speak about spiritual formation. One of the things he described was that there are three things that form us: our relationships, the habits we form, and the stories we believe. We know that God has a great story for us: one where we are unconditionally loved, where forgiveness and a fresh start is freely available, where brokenness can be healed, where we have a purpose that is far greater and far more exciting than anything we can imagine. But we can lose sight of that, and begin to believes lies – that we are unworthy, unloved, hopeless, condemned. We need to speak out that message in ways that children and young people can understand, and equip parents and carers to build these truths into their children’s hearts and minds. Rachel Turner’s book Parenting Children for a Life of Confidence is a great starting place for parents, and It Takes a Church to Raise a Parent explores ways in which churches can create a culture that engages and supports parents on this journey.
Get ourselves trained
Churches need to ensure that those on the frontline of working with families, children and young people are properly equipped to spot and respond to self-harm and other mental health issues they will invariably come across. A great first step would be to get mental health first aid training such as that offered by MFHA England. Youthscape offer training in self harm (and other topics) for professionals and volunteers who work with young people.