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Tag: suicide

Cyber Self-harming

This week I am sharing a guest post by my colleague and friend Nina Funnell which first appeared in The Age. In this Nina attempts to make sense of alarming new findings which suggest teens (girls in particular) are engaging in digital self-harm.

 

In recent weeks, media outlets around the world have reported on the tragic case of Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old girl from Leicestershire, England, who committed suicide, after receiving cruel and harassing messages – including to “drink bleach” and “die” – on the social media site Ask.fm.

Critics of the site have urged parents to keep their children off it, saying that the anonymous question/ answer format leads to harassment, stalking and bullying.

Now the case has taken another tragic turn. In an inquiry into the matter, Ask.fm has uncovered that 98 per cent of the abusive messages sent to Hannah came from the same IP address as her own computer. Only four of the abusive comments came from other IP addresses.

While there are still a lot of unknowns in this case, it has now been reported that the abuse sent to Hannah appears to have come from Hannah herself. Following this latest development, many people online have expressed their utter bewilderment: what could drive a teenager to attack herself and then put it on display? Why would anyone self-sabotage in this way? And are other teenagers doing this?

Last year, researchers at the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Centre found that up to ten per cent of first year university students had “falsely posted a cruel remark against themselves, or cyberbullied themselves, during high school”.

And this is not the first time that online ‘self-harassment’ or ‘self-cyberbullying’ has been identified and written about. In 2010, danah boyd, a leading social media researcher wrote about an emerging trend she had discovered on Formspring, where teens were ‘anonymously’ posting vicious questions to themselves, before publicly answering them.

Similarly, in 2008 I conducted research into the pro-anorexia community – a community set up by individuals with eating disorders. I discovered that it was not uncommon for members on these forums to write letters of worship to their disease referred to as ‘Ana’ or ‘Mia’ (anorexia or bulimia). The same member would then write a reply to themselves as though they were the personified disease. These second letters ‘from’ Ana or Mia would inevitably be full of abuse, insults and vicious put downs.

So what motivates this phenomenon and why have we heard so little about it?

According to boyd, online self-harassment like that observed on Formspring or Ask.fm, may represent a cry for help, a grab for attention, an opportunity to demonstrate toughness and resilience, or a way of phishing for compliments from friends who jump in to defend against the abuse. Boyd also describes the behavior as a form of ‘digital self-harming’, stressing that teens who are in pain do not always lash out at others: very often they lash out at themselves. And occasionally they invite an audience to watch on.

For the ‘digital self-harmer’ the presence of an audience appears to serve other purposes too. Anonymously calling oneself a “loser” online allows them to test out other people’s attitudes: do other people see me this way too? Is my perception of myself shared universally?

Secondly, by inflicting harm on themselves before an audience, it makes their pain visible and therefore more ‘real’. Finally, by giving others the impression that they are ‘under attack’, the afflicted individual is able communicate to others exactly what they are feeling: overwhelmed and under siege. And they can achieve this without ever having to risk saying the words: “I’m in pain, I need your help”.

What this means is that while the abusive comments might be manufactured the feelings they speak to are very much real.

Looking back at my own high school years, it is clear that aspects of this behavior are nothing new. Teens have always had a propensity to document their negative self-talk and self-loathing in one form or another, often in journals, angst ridden poetry and other forms of art. Sometimes teens keep these things deeply private out of secrecy and shame. At other times, they deliberately share and show these things to friends, as if to say “see my pain. See me.”

For all of us, pain is not simply something we feel, it is something we ‘perform’, often with the purpose of eliciting certain responses from others. For teenagers especially, these performances can become avenues through which they bond, ask for empathy or sympathy, and experience a sense of connectedness – something which most teenagers crave desperately. While this strategy might serve a need, it is also deeply dysfunctional.

Today this impulse is moving online. In recent months I have had two conversations with different mothers after they discovered that their children’s friends were self-harming, then posting photographs of their injuries online for their peers to comment on. Perhaps most disturbing of all was that one of the children shrugged it off as “nothing new”.

Experts are right to worry that by normalising or even glamorising self-harming behaviors, such overt displays might produce a contagion effect. This is why it’s considered dangerous to even mention the issue in schools.

Despite this, it’s important that researchers continue to look at why young people are externalising their self-hatred in this way and what can be done to help them. Moreover we must remember that sometimes the cruelest things a teen will ever hear are the comments they say to themselves.

For related posts read: Girls in crises – self harm and what you can do about it.

Rage and despair – positive, helpful ways to support girls in crises 

Nina and I at the Australian Human Rights Awards
Nina and I at the Australian Human Rights Awards

Nina is a sexual ethics writer, author and women’s rights advocate. She was awarded the Australian Human Rights Commission Community (Individual) Award in 2010. Nina and I also recently co-wrote a book for young women on navigating dating and relationships; this will be published by Harper Collins in February, 2014.

Girls in crisis: self-harm, and what you can do to help

Increasingly I am being asked by concerned parents and girls about the issue of self-harm, so this week I’m bringing you an abridged version of the section in my book The Butterfly Effect that looks at what drives some girls to hurt themselves, the warning signs to look out for, and what we can do to help girls in crisis.

Trigger warning: The following post contains references to self-harm that may be a trigger for some people.

What is self-harm?

Self-harm is when a girl purposely injures herself, usually in secret. There are many different ways that a girl might do this, including cutting, burning, biting or branding her skin; hitting herself or banging her head; pulling her hair out; picking and pulling at her skin; or picking at old sores to open them up again.

Self-harm warning signs

  • Cuts – especially small shallow parallel cuts on the arms or legs – for which there is no adequate explanation
  • Other frequent and unexplained injuries, such as burns or bruises
  • Starting to wear long sleeves or pants all the time, even in warm weather
  • Sudden aversion to going swimming or getting changed in front of other girls
  • Hair missing, where it has been deliberately pulled out
  • Mood changes, depression, anxiety
  • Spending a lot of time alone
  • Notable difficulty dealing with stressful or emotional situations
  • A drop in school performance

Why do girls self-harm?

While each girl’s situation at home, school, with friends and in the community influences her life in a unique way, there are underlying factors in our culture that are putting more teenage girls at risk than ever before. Being part of society means meeting certain expectations; around adolescence girls begin to be more fully aware of the pressure to fulfil these expectations, which were mapped out before they were even born. Girls can hardly miss the messages about what it takes to be an ideal girl or the ideal woman. Unable to match the ideal no matter how they try, many girls begin to loathe themselves for falling short.

To try to meet the expectations of who they should be, teenage girls may have to tame themselves, blunt themselves. They learn that if they express anger, they will turn people off, because feminine, good girls are agreeable, not cranky. Even though on the surface a girl may appear sad, happy or indifferent, she may really be bottling up rage. Where does girls’ suppressed anger go? For some, it may become depression, drug or alcohol abuse, or self-aggression such as anorexia, bulimia, self-harm or suicide.

In some cases, self-harm is a form of risk-tasking and rebelling, or even of being accepted into a peer group. In others, it is a sign of deep psychological distress, a way of coping with painful, overwhelming feelings. If a girl finds it hard to express emotions such as anger, sadness or grief, marking her body in this way may be her desperate attempt at self-expression. A girl numbed by depression or trauma may self-harm in order to feel something again. It can also be a cry for help. A girl who doesn’t know who to ask for help, or how, may be using her injured body to send a message. And as with eating disorders, there are girls who self-harm because they feel that they are not in control of aspects of their life; for them, self-harm is a way of asserting control.

During the act of hurting herself, a girl may feel as though she is releasing pent-up steam, as if opening the valve on a pressure cooker; the act brings a temporary sense of relief. But self-harm also brings with it guilt, depression, self-loathing, anger, fear, and isolation from friends and family.

Self-harm doesn’t necessarily mean that a girl is suicidal, but all cases of self-harm need to be taken seriously. Self-harm can be related to mental health issues including depression, psychosis, bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder; to a trauma such as physical or sexual abuse; or to some other source of deep psychological pain. Self-harm may also do lasting physical damage. While girls rarely need hospitalisation because of self-harm, they may give themselves lifelong scarring as well as nerve damage.

What can be done to help?

In the short term, if a girl self-harms she needs to learn ways to cope when the urge strikes. Her therapist is likely to suggest ideas such as counting to ten or waiting 15 minutes, to give the feeling a chance to pass; saying ‘No!’ or ‘Stop!’; relaxation techniques such as yoga; or going for a run or doing some other kind of hard physical exercise. Another accepted short-term solution is to choose an alternative to self-harm, such as squeezing ice cubes between her fingers until they go numb, eating a chilli, standing under a cold shower, having her legs waxed or drawing in red on her body instead of cutting. Crucially, the underlying reasons why she self-harms need to be uncovered and worked through with a professional, who will also help her to develop healthier ways of identifying, coping with and expressing painful emotions.

There is much we can do to help prevent girls finding themselves at crisis point; and no matter how troubled a girl is, she can turn her life around. The key is communication. By strengthening a girl’s connections – to her parents, the rest of her family, her friends, community and school – we can give her the best chance.

Girls regularly tell me that what they want more of is their parents’ time. They want their parents to listen. Sometimes when we ask our daughters what’s wrong, we get a blank gaze or a huff or a slammed door, and we give up. Don’t give up too quickly. Your girl may be sending out all the signals to push you away while actually she needs you to keep asking, giving her attention, showing her you care. Therapist Martha B. Straus urges: ‘When she’s at a loss for words, guess and guess again.’ Many teen girls have a limited vocabulary for expressing their feelings, but we can help them. It can take something as simple as ‘I feel really angry about this – do you?’ to open the floodgates.

One of the most helpful things you can do is allow her to express all her emotions, rather than choking on her darker feelings until they turn into despair. ‘When girls can be angry,’ Straus writes, ‘they can also be reassured they are worth such powerful feelings – there is someone in there worth being mad about.’

Action Plan

  • Seek professional help. A good starting point is your GP, for a referral to a relevant specialist, local adolescent mental health team, counsellor or community health centre.
  • Be consistent. Set consistent boundaries, but also be consistent in your loving. Even if she takes a drastic backslide in her recovery, she needs to know that you still love her.
  • Banish secrecy. Maintaining a shroud of secrecy around a crisis is not helpful to girls.
  • Build networks of support. A girl’s networks may include doctors, therapists, adult mentors, relatives, school counsellors and friends.
  • Celebrate. When a girl is on the path to recovery there may be frustrating and disappointing setbacks, but there will be victories, too. Take heart in them. And celebrate.


Helping Teen Girls in Crisis

Trigger warning: This blog post contains references to suicide. If you or anyone you know has suicidal thoughts or behaviour, seek help immediately. These help lines are open 24 hours a day:
Australia
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800
Salvation Army 24-hour Care Line: 1300 36 36 22
New Zealand
Lifeline: 0800 543 354

The tragedy of teenage girl Daani Sanders taking her own life this week weighs heavily on my heart. As a mother with teenage daughters, I have been giving them lots of extra cuddles and kisses. Some media are reporting that bullying on Facebook may have played a role. Certainly since her death, cyberbullies have attacked memorial pages set up on Facebook by her friends. I received comments that I felt were not healing for other teens on my YouTube page featuring an interview I gave with Kerrianne about this topic and made the decision this morning to disable comments:

The hateful comments that have appeared on Facebook are a timely reminder that we all need to keep a close eye on what our teenagers are doing and seeing online. It is especially important that we support our daughters and sons right now, as thousands of Facebook users, including many teens, are joining and viewing the memorial pages. The pages contain a mix of comments – some are healing; some are well-meaning but potentially damaging to vulnerable teens because they inadvertently glorify suicide; and some are intentionally malicious and destructive. Our kids need our help and support in navigating what they might see and read on those memorial pages.

Teens, especially girls, are immersed in the world of social networking from the moment they wake up till the moment they go to bed. These connections are vitally important to them, so the last thing I would want any parent to do is try to ban their daughter from social networking sites – instead, I think it’s important that we educate ourselves and get involved.

For guidance in speaking publicly about this topic, and in helping teens navigate what they see and read about it on social-networking sites and in the media, I have turned to the guidelines for journalists on the reporting of suicide. These guidelines were established by Mindframe, which is affiliated with the Federal Government’s National Media Initiative.

Mindframe cautions that there is “a strong association between news media presentations of suicide and increases in actual suicidal behaviour”, with greater coverage leading to an increase in suicides. This does not mean that we should stop talking to our kids about this topic, though. In fact, there is a decrease in suicidal behaviour when it is portrayed as “a tragic waste and an avoidable loss” and when stories about suicide focus on “the devastating effects on others”.

Many of the commenters on the Facebook memorial pages are conjecturing about the method used. It is important as parents and teachers that we reframe the conversation, because “not reporting method or location” is another way of decreasing the risk of others engaging in suicidal behaviour. Focusing on those who have overcome suicidal thinking is another way to decrease the risk.

Mindframe notes that “we need to find ways of increasing community discussion of suicide and suicide prevention”, which is my aim. Just one teen suicide is too many, so below I am sharing with you an excerpt from my book The Butterfly Effect on the warning signs and what to do if you notice them. For resources on cyberbullying and helping girls stay safe online, you might find these past blog posts helpful: Cyber Bully Busting
Making Friends With Facebook

And for strategies to deal with bullying generally: Bullying, It’s Time to Focus On solutions

Girls in Crisis

Posters available at www.enlighteneducation.com
Posters available at www.enlighteneducation.com

What many people who try to take their lives share is a sense of being trapped in a stressful or painful situation, a situation that they are powerless to change. Having depression or a mental illness raises a person’s risk of suicide. Stressful life events or ongoing stressful situations may fuel feelings of desperation or depression that can lead to suicide attempts. Examples of these stresses include the death of a loved one, divorce or a relationship breakup, a child custody dispute, settling in to a blended family, financial trouble, or a serious illness or accident. Any kind of abuse – physical, verbal or sexual – increases the risk, and that applies not only to teens but their mothers and fathers as well, even if that abuse took place many years ago but is unresolved. Substance abuse by any member of a family affects the other members of the family and can either directly lead to suicidal feelings or indirectly, through the loss of income and social networks or trouble with the law.

Looking at teens in particular, bullying needs to be taken seriously as it has been known to make children try to take their own life. Also, teens are right in the middle of forming their own individual identities and a major component of that is their sexuality. For a teenager who is questioning their sexual preference or gender, the pressure to be like everyone else, the taunting they receive because they clearly are not, or their own guilt and confusion can become unbearable. A relationship breakup can be a trigger for suicide in some teens. As adults, we have the ability to look at the bigger picture and know that in years to come, a teenage breakup will not seem anywhere near as important as it does at the time. Your teenage daughter, on the other hand, may not yet have the maturity to see beyond the immediate pain. If she seems unduly distressed about a breakup, pay attention. Another trigger for teen suicide is the recent suicide of someone close to them, or the anniversary of a suicide or death of someone close to them, so these are times when your daughter may need extra support.

Suicide is hard to talk about. It is almost taboo, simply too painful to touch on. But silence can be deadly. Often the parents of a teen girl at risk of suicide do not ask their daughter the tough question of whether she is planning to take her own life. In part they may be in a state of denial, which is only human – after all, no parent wants to imagine that their daughter feels suicidal. They may also have a fear that seems to be ingrained in our culture: that if they mention suicide to their depressed or distressed daughter, they will be putting the idea in her head. But experts in adolescent mental health agree that it is more than okay to speak directly to your daughter about suicide. “Parents are often worried that by asking they may make matters worse. Well, I have never known a child to suicide because someone asked whether they were thinking about it,” says Dr Brent Waters. “They should ask; the issues won’t just go away.”

Another unhelpful myth about suicide is that a teen who talks about suicide is simply seeking attention and won’t actually take her life. In fact, four out of five young people who commit suicide tell someone of their intentions beforehand. Besides, I have never understood the point of making a distinction between attention seeking, a cry for help or a genuine intention to commit suicide. Even if a teen is not actually going to go through with a plan to take her life, if she is distressed enough to cry out for help, her voice needs to be heard and she needs our support.

Suicide warning signs
• Loss of interest in activities she used to enjoy
• Giving away her prized possessions
• Thoroughly cleaning her room and throwing out important things
• Violent or rebellious behaviour
• Running away from home
• Substance abuse
• Taking no interest in her clothes or appearance
• A sudden, marked personality change
• Withdrawal from friends, family and her usual activities
• A seeming increase in her accident proneness, or signs of self-harm
• A change in eating and sleeping patterns
• A drop in school performance, due to decreased concentration and feelings of boredom
• Frequent complaints about stomach aches, headaches, tiredness and other symptoms that may be linked to emotional upsets
• Rejection of praise or rewards
• Verbal hints such as “I won’t be a problem for you much longer” or “Nothing matters anyway”
• Suddenly becoming cheerful after a period of being down, which may indicate she has made a resolution to take her life

What you can do
Reading the list of suicide warning signs is enough to chill anyone, but there is much you can do to help someone who is suicidal. Number one: if anyone – child, adolescent or adult – says something like “I want to kill myself” or “I’m going to kill myself”, seek help straightaway. Remove anything they might be tempted to use to kill themselves with and stay with them. Dial 000 if you need to, or a crisis line. The following phone counselling services are available throughout Australia 24 hours a day:
• Lifeline: 13 11 14
• Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800
• Salvation Army 24-hour Care Line: 1300 36 36 22
In New Zealand, phone:
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354
Another valuable thing you can do to help someone you fear is having suicidal thoughts is to listen. These pointers are adapted from the Victorian Government’s excellent “Youth suicide prevention – the warning signs” on www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au:
• Listen and encourage her to talk
• Tell her you care
• Acknowledge her feelings
• Reassure her
• Gently point out the consequences of her suicide, for her and the people she leaves behind
• Stay calm; try not to panic or get angry
• Try not to interrupt her
• Try not to judge her
• Don’t overwhelm her with too much advice or stories about your own experiences

My thoughts are with Daani Sander’s family and friends. My thoughts are with all of us who have lost loved ones through suicide. May we all, somehow, find peace. xxx

Postscript 25/7:  I was interviewed by Miranda Devine for her column entitled “A Network of Nastiness” late last week. It offers further commentary on cyber bullying and the perils of the always on on-line world.

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