Like Towie’s Gemma Collins, one in six people aged between 16-24 have self harmed. CEO of Mercy UK, Arianna Walker explains that self-harm is merely the symptom that indicates there is a problem that needs addressing.
Gemma Collins’ recent documentary Self-harm and Me was both tragic and encouraging in equal measures. Tragic because her story is a familiar one to me, and no less heart-breaking for having heard the same story from thousands of “Gemmas” over the last 15 years of leading Mercy UK.
And yet, amidst the sense of tragedy, I also felt some encouragement - perhaps this documentary is indicative of a shift that is taking place, a willingness to at least talk about the issues that matter? Perhaps we are finally taking off the mask a previous generation put on us- the “Keep Calm and Carry on”, stoic, stiff upper lip that was once so celebrated, but a mantra we now know has a devastating effect on people’s ability to process pain.
Self-harm is simply a coping mechanism - an external response to internal, emotional pain and Christians are as much at risk from using this coping mechanism (or any other destructive coping mechanism) as anyone else. The NHS reports that 1 in 15 have self-harmed at some point while that goes up to 1 in 6 if the age group is reduced to 16-24. These shocking statistics are not numbers limited to nameless faces in our schools, workplaces, gyms or neighbourhoods. They are equally valid in our churches, in our youth groups, and in our Christian families.
Self-harm itself is not the problem; self-harm is merely the symptom that indicates there is a problem. Self-harm, like other life-controlling behaviours, such as eating disorders, depression and anxiety disorders are like branches of a tree. They are being fed by root causes, buried deep in the soil of our past and our circumstances. Roots such as abandonment, rejection, fear, anger, or shame can all contribute to the deep sense of feeling trapped inside our own pain and needing to find a way to cope, which is a hall mark of those who struggle with life-controlling issues.
Self-harm itself is not the problem; self-harm is merely the symptom that indicates there is a problem.
Sadly, most people who strive to be free, focus their attention only on what they can see and so help is sought (and given) with “cutting off” those branches of behaviour. In other words, the behaviours are dealt with by modifying them, managing them, or medicating them. Now, this approach may well be successful – a branch can indeed be cut off and be removed but if the root isn’t dealt with, the behaviour will return or manifest itself in a different branch. For Gemma Collins, her root of shame (identified by her counsellor) is still very much present - which means, though she no longer self-harms, she admits to having a dysfunctional relationship with food and having dysfunctional relationships with men - proof that while one behaviour may be dealt with, if the root is still alive, that metaphoric tree will sprout a branch elsewhere.
This means we need to address the why behind the what. The challenge we all face as human beings planted in imperfect soil, is the removal of the roots caused by imperfect people, imperfect circumstances, imperfect interventions. The truth is, we need a perfect God.
”The scars on my body are because of my past, but the scars on Jesus’ body are because of my future.” - Laura, who used to self-harm
If you or someone you know is struggling with self-harm, there is hope and there is help. At Mercy UK, we see the scars of the past carved on the bodies of countless people and our message to them is always the same: Jesus is not a temporary solution to emotional brokenness. Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life and complete freedom from any and all compulsive behaviours, including self-harm, can be found in and through a process of healing from the inside out. Jesus is a healer of root causes, not just a remover of branches. He is transformation, not just treatment.
For more than 15 years, at Mercy UK, we have been helping people deal with the root issues of their behaviours, including self-harm, and know that it is possible to live free and stay free. There is a divine exchange that can place; his beauty for ashes, his smile for tears, his healing for pain, his bright future for the dark past. In the words of Laura, who used to self-harm: “The scars on my body are because of my past, but the scars on his body are because of my future. His blood was shed, so mine doesn’t have to.”
For more information and helpful training, resources and workbooks, please visit Mercyuk.org