Why do people, especially young people, self-harm?
One of the saddest stories of the past week was a report that highlighted a huge rise in hospital admissions related to those who intentionally harm themselves.
As a result, a BBC reporter, looking for some explanation, interviewed a 20-year-old woman.
She gave lots of information – about how common the practice was, how nobody seemed able to help, how desperate circumstances pushed people into it.
They might use poison, they might use sharp objects (the two most common methods) but the reason is the same.
What is that?
If you’d seen the two-and-a-half-minute clip, the answer was obvious. Whatever she might or might not have said, her body language was unmistakable: I’m miserable, I’m worthless, I have no-one to love me.
She was articulate and informed – an excellent interviewee – but all the time she was crying inside. It broke my heart.
The response from officialdom – concerned and committed as most health professionals are – was that a) they had no idea why the practice was increasing rapidly (one in twelve young people now) and b) they had no idea what to do about it.
And no, I’m not going to say that if they joined a church all their problems would be over (though having written that, I do know of several churches that run young people’s groups that do provide the love and affirmation that is so clearly lacking).
Rather, I want to underline a core truth: these young people have grown up in a society where “valuing the individual” does not have a high priority.
As if to emphasise this, we’ve seen again the shocking pictures of those adult folk with learning difficulties being abused at Winterbourne View care home. The extraordinarily vivid pictures caught in secret filming showed how little regard we can have at times for other human beings, especially the weak and vulnerable.
What’s the connection between that and self-harming?
What we see on the screen as physical assault is like an outside view of what goes on inside many people while they are young.
Seeing parents quarrelling or fighting. Being rejected, starved of affection. Even being ignored by teachers. Seeking compensation in teenage sex – only to end up feeling used and dirty.
These all give blows to the heart, just as damaging as the blows to the bodies of those care home residents. What grows up is a sense of worthlessness, even of guilt. And in the hearts of increasing numbers of young people, self-loathing.
“I’m horrible. I hate myself.” What more natural than to attack “your enemy”, the one whom you hate – even if it is your own self?
What can God possibly have to say about something so deeply buried in the human heart?
“I have loved you always and totally. It was because I saw you before you were born that I created you. You are not a mistake: you are unique and utterly precious to Me. Even if you have messed up – and every single human being does – in Jesus all those wrong choices will be washed away. In exchange for that damaged, hurting heart, I want to give you one that is brand new.’
God weeps for the pain of wounded hearts. So much so, that He went through the self-inflicted pain of seeing His own son – Jesus – die so that we might live – loved, able to receive love, able to give it.
It’s the only example of self-harm that has ever produced any good.
By Nigel O’Dwyer, who leads Goring New Life Church