Wendy Woolfson

The Story of Out of Harm

In 2015 I worked for Childline a UK based helpline for children and young people up to the age of their nineteenth birthday. For many of them it’s a lifeline.  A significant percentage of the calls received from the young people I spoke to were using self-harm as a way of coping with their problems and felt they didn’t have an adult in their life that they could talk to about it. They said the adults they had tried to share this with lacked empathy and understanding as to what self-harm is and why they were doing it. This compounded the negative feelings they already had about themselves and their problems, adding to their shame and isolation. It was hard to hear that these young people had no one to turn to; no one they could trust enough to talk to about what’s going on for them and how they’re coping, except a stranger at the end of a phone.

In 2016 the NSPCC reported; “Childline delivered over 18,471 counselling sessions about self-harm last year, making it one of the most common reasons for children and young people to reach out for support.” They also said, “Nearly 19,000 children and young people in England and Wales were hospitalised for self-harm last year[1]. This marks an increase of almost 2,400 (14%) in the past 3 years.”

It was apparent there was a gap in people’s understanding as well as a lot of fear. Many adults are shocked to learn a young person they care about is hurting themselves and want them to stop, which is a natural human response to seeing someone you care about harming themselves. However, self-harm is a way of coping, and if you take away a person’s coping mechanism, what do they have left to cope with?

After a year of listening to this, night after night, I was feeling angry, in despair and helpless. I had my own experience of self-harm and I could empathise. I wanted to do something positive to make a change, I had an idea. At the time, I was on the board for the arts organisation conFAB. I called the Director and arranged a meeting. I had this vision in my head. I felt I knew what needed to be done but I needed someone to support it. There were to be two strands to this work.

Firstly, I proposed we create a Conversation Guide (CG). The CG would support adults to feel confident about finding words they need to effectively support a young person when they disclose self-harm. It was apparent that when young people talked about self-harm to a trusted person in their life, the adults got scared, panicked, and didn’t know what to say. It’s a natural human reaction but that’s exactly what it is – a reaction. It’s not a response, it’s not helpful and it can be damaging. Adults are terrified of talking about self-harm. I recalled my Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training ASIST , I loved that model, and its direct approach. I thought we could apply a similar approach to the self-harm conversation guide.

Secondly, we needed a Toolkit. Something that could provide some information on what self-harm is and how to approach using the CG. I had done some initial research on self-harm and I viewed it from the perspective of a parent or a busy support worker. The volume of information is overwhelming and complex. That’s not to say it isn’t good, quite the opposite and subsequently we included many of those resources in the Toolkit. However, as a parent or professional, pushed for time and feeling stressed, it was possibly too much information and what I wanted was to provide something brief and to the point, that could be accessed at a moments’ notice in a handy to use form, and free.
Thanks to the support of Confab, the project was adequately funded and all safeguarding aspects were in place to ensure the young people, their families, as well as the public were well supported.

We searched for a group of young people with experience of self-harm aged 16-25, who could participate in a series of eight therapeutic storytelling workshops. This would involve sharing some of their own experience, if they felt comfortable to do so. We also explained that this was a pilot group and they would be pioneers for other young people to consider sharing their story about self-harm. It was to be part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival (SMHAFF) which would include putting on two public events. When we approached the organisations and spoke to support workers, social workers, teachers, children’s’ home managers, they were all enthusiastic. However, the young people did not want to participate, and who can blame them, it was a big ask.

At the eleventh hour a development worker from the organisation Penumbra  stepped forward. The North Ayrshire Self-Harm Project provides a non-judgemental, person centred service to residents of North Ayrshire who self-harm, including adults. They also explore the needs of family, carers and professionals in contact with young people who self-harm. She had two young people who had agreed to take part. We found another through the contact of a friend and the last was asked by the development worker as he walked into the youth centre on the day the first session started. He was a regular at the centre and someone she had been trying to contact, unsuccessfully, up to that point.

We ran eight sessions, meeting once a week with this group to support them to explore their own stories of self-harm, experience a safe sharing space and hear some traditional tales as well as explore and acknowledge feelings and experiences. There were seven sessions before the SMHAFF and one afterwards as a de-brief, so we could come together and create a positive ending to the whole project. They were to learn a bit about the tradition of storytelling and explore their own story in the context of a folktale. We also worked with photographer Lisa Craig, to visually represent and reflect feelings. They would take photographs on their mobile phones between sessions and bring them to the group the following week. Their work was professionally printed and displayed at the public events and they each received these as gifts to keep.

The sessions were open and sharing and very playful. We had a lot of laughs, a lot of nonsense, some of it quite dark. We had prepared and created a safe space that enabled us to do this.

Preparation for the festival events was crucial and were managed not only for the young people but for the public as well. Talking about self-harm can be triggering so we were transparent about what the project was about and explained all stories and performances would not be explicit or in any way describe self-harm. The photographic images displayed were only reflective of feelings, not physical injury or harm. The group took control of the public space to make it their own. During our weekly sessions, they had got used to creating a story space using the materials and objects I brought, and it was this they used to support the external experience of sharing their very personal story with other people.
They had the option to not tell their story right up until the last moment and they could ask me or another member of the group to share it for them instead or not at all. We de-briefed at the end and on the final night went out for a celebratory meal. Some of them brought a friend or a member of their family to the events which was a wonderful opportunity for me to meet those people who had supported them through hard times and continued to do so.

The development of the Toolkit took place when the workshops were complete. The artist Josie Vallely did the research while I worked on the CG. It took some months to trawl through the swathes of information to get to the core and present it in plain English. The young people had the final edit on the CG and were not shy about making changes. We felt it was important that they be informed and involved throughout this process as it was a tool for supporting young people.

This is a topic that continues to be swept under the carpet, even more so than suicide. There are many misconceptions surrounding self-harm as well as fear. It was a scary moment for me to put it out in public as I considered the potential criticism. None of that has happened. I have given talks and training for schools and support agencies and had positive feedback and responses from a range of people and services including parents, social workers, teachers and support workers.

I am currently working in a social care setting for a Scottish charity who have integrated the Toolkit into some of their training. My hope is to continue developing the work and provide more therapeutic sessions for vulnerable groups.

In the groups own words:
“Thanks for everything you’ve done. It has been a wonderful pleasure, to have the chance of experiencing all of this with everyone. It has all opened my eyes – and my heart – and I can’t thank you enough!”

“It was satisfying and helpful to explore the issues I went through in a safe and welcoming place that the Out of Harm project provided.”

“This gave me such a boost in self-confidence with taking part in new things outside of my comfort zone.”

“I felt a sense of accomplishment.”

“You get to meet people who have suffered from problems similar to your own.” 

If you’ve been affected by anything you’ve read, there are some links below to helpful websites and resources.

NSHN National Self Harm Network
Young Minds



Artwork by Daniel Murphy