As Olympic golden girl Victoria Pendleton admits self-harming… the secret pressures driving so many teenage girls to cut
21:58 GMT, 5 September 2012
22:06 GMT, 5 September 2012
Anguish: 'I hated my body and wanted to hurt it,' says Megan
Amy Feltham took a deep breath and ran her penknife across her arm. As the blade pierced her skin and blood seeped out, she felt a sense of calm and quiet relief.
The sudden pain eclipsed the problems that had been flooding her mind for the past few hours and, for a few moments at least, Amy felt free of the pressures of life.
Afterwards, she pulled down her sleeves, walked out of the toilets at her secondary school and returned to class.
Amy, who has bravely agreed to talk publicly about her behaviour, is one of a growing number of teenage self-harmers in Britain. She is speaking out in the hope of stopping other young girls from following her own destructive path.
Recent research suggests that between one in 12 and one in 15 British teenagers is known to self-harm, while the number of children being admitted to hospital in England with self-inflicted injuries has increased by 68 per cent in the past decade.
These rates are the highest in Europe. Worryingly, the true number may be higher still, as experts believe only 12 per cent of adolescents who self-harm, including increasing numbers of boys, come to the attention of the authorities.
Even Olympic cycling star Victoria Pendleton admitted to self-harming this week. She said the pressure to win and fear of failure led to her cutting her arms with a Swiss army knife until a ‘soothing numbness’ spread through her body.
Lucie Russell, director of campaigns and policy at mental health charity Young Minds, says: ‘These shocking statistics should act as a wake-up call. Young people are under a lot of pressure. Self-harm is a coping strategy, but a very destructive one.’
So what is driving so many teenagers to hurt themselves In Amy’s case, self-harm was sparked by a desire to do well at school. A straight-A pupil and the product of a privileged, middle-class upbringing, she was expected by her parents to sail through school before studying to become a doctor.
But by the age of 13, she felt crippled by the pressure to succeed.
‘My SATS exams were approaching, and I worried about letting myself down,’ says Amy, now 19 and living with her parents in London.
‘One day I accidentally stubbed my toe and the pain temporarily stopped my anxiety, so that evening I started squeezing my lip with my hole punch.
‘I didn’t want to have to explain a cut so I stopped before it bled, but the pain provided a distraction.’
Over the next few weeks Amy regularly punched her lip and, when that wasn’t enough to instill calm, she used the blade from her pencil sharpener to cut her arms instead.
‘Before long I was cutting myself at home and school,’ she says. ‘I didn’t stop until I saw blood, which made me feel I’d let the pain out.’
After four months Amy, the youngest of three sisters, confided in her father, 57, an occupational psychologist, and her mother, 45, a nursery teacher.
‘We had a close relationship and I wanted their help,’ she says.
Amy’s GP put her on Prozac, but the anti-depressants actually made her feel worse. ‘I grew suicidal,’ she says.
Within a month, she’d taken three overdoses and was admitted to Springfield psychiatric hospital in South London for three months.
‘It wasn’t a cry for help: I wanted to die,’ she says.
Eventually back at school, Amy started self-harming again. ‘I still felt under pressure, and now I was alienated from my classmates who knew I’d been ill,’ she says.
Amy bought a Stanley knife and began to cut her legs and stomach as well as her arms. ‘If my parents took away my knife I’d use a compass until I could buy another one,’ she says.
Amy tried to keep her cuts hidden by wearing long-sleeved tops. ‘If anybody noticed them, I’d say I’d fallen into a bush or the cat had scratched me.’
Frequent overdoses and admissions to
hospital inevitably affected her grades. She was hospitalised throughout
much of her GCSEs and too ill for A-levels.
went to college to study health and social care, but dropped out after
six weeks. At 17, after another stint in hospital, she got a job as a
nursery assistant. She finally stopped self-harming a year ago, after
being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.
Turmoil: Amy Feltham, left, felt crippled at age 13 by the pressure to succeed, and Vanessa, right, felt left out because her Muslim upbringing was different to those of her school friends
‘I was finally referred to the right specialists,’ she says. ‘Through them I learned how to find release through expressing my emotions, and now, if I get the urge to self-harm, I talk to someone instead.’
Amy says her parents have blamed themselves. ‘They’ve asked if there was something they could have done differently, but it wasn’t their fault. I put the pressure on myself.
‘My scars upset me, but they’re a part of my past and remind me how lucky I am to have moved on.’
Celebrity culture and social media may be contributing to the rising number of teenagers who self-harm.
Stars including the late Amy
Winehouse have confessed to doing it, while internet message boards and
Twitter provide a forum for anonymous self-harmers to discuss cutting
themselves in disturbing detail.
Dr Alys Cole-King, who has spent 20 years treating self-harm patients,
says: ‘There is emerging evidence that websites promoting self-harm may
have more influence on vulnerable young people than we previously
who self-harm often suffer from eating disorders, too, and are
expressing their self-hatred by harming their bodies in different ways.
Armer, now 19, is a case in point. She has struggled with her weight
since the age of four, when classmates bullied her for being stocky.
the time she was 13, she was bulimic and arguing with her mother
Elaine, 51, and father Dave, 60, who both work for an NHS printing
company, about her refusal to eat normally.
150 children aged ten or under were admitted to hospitals in England after intentional self-harm in 2010
‘I felt so angry I needed a release, and pricked myself with needles from my mum’s sewing kit,’ she says.
‘Afterwards I felt ashamed, but the pain in my head had gone. It was a similar feeling of release to being sick after eating. I hated my body and wanted to hurt it.’
Megan — whose two older half-brothers and half-sister from her parents’ previous marriages had already left home — quickly progressed to using razor blades, kitchen knives and broken glass. ‘The angrier I got, the more I cut, and I’d have to cut deeper every time to get the same feeling of release,’ says Megan, from Leeds.
Some weeks later, her mother noticed
the scars on her arms and challenged Megan. ‘I burst into tears and
admitted self-harming,’ she says. ‘Mum was shocked, but said she’d
Megan kept her problem a secret from her peers. ‘I covered my scars
with long sleeves, and had no friends to confide in,’ she says.
the time she was 14, Megan’s bulimia had turned to anorexia and her
weight had dropped to 4st 3lb. She spent five months on the psychiatric
ward at Leeds General Infirmary, where she was fed six meals a day to
hospital I realised lots of anorexics cut themselves,’ she says. ‘We’d
swap tips about how to hide blades, discuss who had cut most often and
the deepest, and when we were left unsupervised we’d tear staples out of
magazines and cut ourselves together.’
16, Megan’s weight had stabilised at 7st — but recovering from anorexia
made the self-harm worse. ‘I began cutting myself every day, whenever I
felt fat,’ she says.
who had once been an A-grade student, left school with four GCSEs. She
enrolled at college to study an airline cabin crew diploma, and moved
into a council house at 16. ‘Mum and I weren’t close and my problems
highlighted our differences,’ she says. ‘Leaving home made it easier to
self-harm.’ That year, a friend introduced her to her boyfriend Jason
Hoang, also 19, an architecture student. ‘He was upset by my
self-harming but felt powerless to stop me,’ she says.
Influence Evidence suggests that websites promoting self-harm influence vulnerable young women more than we had previously realised
Last March she left college and found part-time jobs at a fast-food restaurant and a sports store. It was having to wear short-sleeved uniforms for both jobs that forced Megan to stop self-harming.
‘Whenever I feel sad or angry, I still get urges to do it. But the thought of having more scars stops me — I couldn’t stand the shame of people seeing.’
Mental health expert Lucie Russell says there has been a marked increase in cases of self-harm in young British Asian women, who feel torn between two cultures.
Vanessa Findlay, 23, from Leeds, is the daughter of a 55-year-old Muslim taxi driver. Her white mother, a 45-year-old health support worker, converted to Islam when they married.
Vanessa says her strict upbringing was at odds with that of her schoolmates. ‘My parents were protective, and I didn’t fit in at school,’ she says. ‘I was also an introspective child, and felt stuck in the middle of my older siblings’ stronger personalities.’
At ten, Vanessa began banging her head against the walls of the family home. ‘It wasn’t so much that I wanted to hurt myself, more a need to stop my thoughts,’ she says.
The following year, she started cutting herself. ‘Some classmates were bullying me one day so I locked myself in the toilets then grabbed my compass and cut my forearms.
‘For a few seconds my worries disappeared. I was shocked by what I’d done, but the adrenalin, relief and pain were comforting.’
As the years passed Vanessa’s self-harm escalated until, by the age of 14, she was cutting her legs, stomach, arms and chest up to four times a day with razor blades or dismantled pencil sharpeners.
‘I wore long sleeves through winter and summer and told nobody what was happening,’ says Vanessa, who started suffering panic attacks and, like Megan, developed anorexia. ‘I was disgusted by my body,’ she says.
One of Vanessa’s friends realised what she was doing and spoke to the school’s educational support officer. Following his intervention and unbeknown to her parents, Vanessa started seeing a psychiatrist once a week but, sadly, her problems persisted.
It was only when she turned 16 that her parents found out. ‘They read my diary,’ she says. ‘When my mum confronted me, I denied it. Self-harm was a lifeline: I wouldn’t let anyone stop me.’
Vanessa says she has lost count of the number of times she tried to take her own life between the ages of 16 and 18. ‘I overdosed on paracetamol and anti-depressants,’ she says. ‘I felt completely alone.’
Like Amy and Megan, she was also a bright student, yet her deteriorating mental health meant she completed only two of her four A-levels.
At 18, after dropping out of a college nursing course and taking yet another overdose, she was admitted to a psychiatric unit in Hull and later sectioned for a month. Since then she has been in and out of hospital a dozen times.
She stopped self-harming 18 months ago, after agreeing to take part in a student’s PhD research on self-harm. ‘I was given a camera for two weeks and told to take pictures of anything that made me think of self-harming,’ she says.
‘They included everything from stinging nettles to shattered glass. Looking at all the pictures made me realise how strange this was. By taking away the emotion, I was finally able to understand my behaviour and learn how to stop it.’
Vanessa — who still suffers from anorexia — had a relapse a month ago, and still has a compulsion to self-harm every day. She has been living alone for four years now, but has built bridges with her parents.
Vanessa regularly sees her GP, a community nurse and a psychiatrist. She hopes one day to be well enough to study psychology, but admits: ‘I’m just surviving from one day to the next at the moment.’