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Note: Al Jazeera is publishing this piece on World Suicide Prevention Day. If you are affected by any of the issues it raises, please visit IASP’s website.
Megan Dallat shows me her series of three photographs of women hanging in a downtown Belfast art gallery. Each of the women has a violent streak of red paint running across their bodies.
They are disturbing images, particularly given Dallat’s history of self-harm.
The arts blogger first cut herself when she was 14, on her left forearm with a pin. She progressed to fishing knives and razor blades on her upper thighs. The cutting continued until last year when, at 23, she got the help she needed and stopped self-harming.
“Back then if I was to cut I would know that I was going to do it throughout the day. I would feel a building frustration and there was nothing that I could do to help myself, or nowhere I could turn.
“It was so frustrating and then it was almost exciting to get ready to do it, and then doing it was a release of, I don’t know, an up emotion,” said Dallat, who has a small sunflower tattooed on one ankle and a tiny heart tattoo, barely visible in white ink, on her wrist.
Mental health workers estimate that 10 to 15 percent of young people self-harm; cutting and pill overdoses are the most common forms. Most, like Dallat, learn other ways of coping and outgrow the destructive behaviour by their mid-20s, but 1 to 2 percent end up committing suicide.
Mental health professionals say that a majority of people who do kill themselves have self-harmed at some point in their lives.
Parents of young people who self-harm are often blind-sided when they learn their carefully nurtured child is harming himself or herself. Dallat’s parents learned their daughter’s secret from a teacher.
Now, there is help available, in the form of a 12-page booklet entitled Coping with Self-harm; A Guide for Parents and Carers. It’s been translated into Flemish and Icelandic, and other languages may follow.
I went to Oxford to the university’s Centre for Suicide Research to meet the guide’s author.
Anne Ferrey consulted 42 parents in putting together the guide. It’s clearly written with tips on what parents should look for: a child refusing to swim, covering their arms with long sleeves, or bangles and bracelets – more than the usual teenage withdrawn behaviour.
Ferrey explained that self-harm does seem to release endorphins, positive chemicals that bring short-term relief.
“For some people it just helps them feel more in control of their life. So, young people will say, ‘I can’t control anything else … but I can control how I treat my own body’.
“Although it does help them in the moment feel like it’s improving the way they’re feeling, overall it’s quite negative and it’s not something you would want to continue,” she said.
Ferrey’s office in the Department of Psychiatry is tucked behind the Warneford Hospital, built in 1826 as the Oxford Lunatic Asylum. Just the language shows how far we’ve come since then in accepting mental illness.
It’s difficult to find people willing to talk about mental illness. Most don’t want to expose themselves to ridicule – to be considered a “freak”. And those who’ve stopped cutting want to forget their unstable period and move on.
Dallat is a rare, brave voice willing to buck the stigma and talk about her difficult history.
“The more people talk about it the more you feel you can open up without being judged,” Dallat told me as rain pelted the large windows in her Belfast studio.
“I can talk about [self-harm] because I am completely over it, and if there’s anything I can do to help other people stop, I want to do it.”
Click here to view Dallat’s personal website.