Too many teenagers, mostly girls, resort to self-harm in extreme situations to manage their anger, pain, anguish and bad memories. Babra Wani interacts with the girls who had run-offs with self-harm to understand how their parents and doctors brought them out of harm’s way
It was nearly a year ago when Shafiya (name changed) stepped into her daughter’s room one evening and encountered a “nightmare”, which continues to haunt her even now.
A mother of two living in Srinagar’s Nishat, Shafiya’s life has undergone a seismic shift since that fateful day. She vividly recalls the date and time, as if imprinted on her soul: April, a Thursday. It was then that her world crumbled before her very eyes as she entered her teenage daughter’s room. The sight that greeted her was nothing short of devastation – her daughter’s arm lay submerged in a pool of blood.
Overwhelmed with shock and horror, she swiftly moved to cover the wound, enveloped by a dark haze of uncertainty. “I was blind to the situation, consumed by darkness. I didn’t care about anything else in that moment,” she recollects, her voice trembling with emotion. “I simply wanted to save her.”
Determined to provide her daughter with every possible form of assistance, Shafiya embarked on a relentless quest for help. She sought out her uncle, a physician, hopeful that he would offer the guidance they desperately needed. However, it was during this encounter that the harsh reality dawned upon her: her daughter required psychiatric help, setting in motion a challenging journey that Shafiya would bravely navigate by her daughter’s side.
“Even now, as she continues her treatment, I remain steadfastly by her side,” Shafiya affirms, her unwavering dedication evident in her words.
Bullied At School
Shafiya had always believed that her children, especially her daughter Sana (name changed), led ordinary lives. It had never occurred to her to delve into the depths of her daughter’s school and social experiences until she discovered the telltale scars adorning Sana’s arms. “Looking back, I realise that I should have been more vigilant, more attuned to her friendships and school life,” Shafiya concedes, a tinge of regret colouring her voice. Sana, currently in eleventh grade, reveals that her journey of self-harm began in seventh grade. “When my mother found out, it wasn’t the first time,” Sana reveals. Recounting her past, she shares the torment she endured at the hands of her classmates, who subjected her to relentless bullying due to her height and weight. “My physical appearance made me an easy target. They mocked and body-shamed me, even my so-called friends. The entire class joined in the laughter, labelling me with derogatory names like ‘cow’ and ‘airtel tower,'” she recounts with a mix of anguish and indignation. Overwhelmed by a profound sense of helplessness, Sana found solace in the act of self-harm. “When I first cut my arm, I was consumed by thoughts of death. But as the blood flowed, I realised it offered a strange relief, easing the pain that plagued me,” she reveals. Sana never confided in her parents or teachers, for self-harm became her escape from misery.
Upon seeking guidance from a psychiatrist, Shafiya discovered that Sana was grappling with depression and harbouring suicidal thoughts. Armed with this newfound knowledge, she resolved to confront her daughter’s friends and teachers, bearing the weight of her daughter’s anguish. Armed with her daughter’s prescription, she met with the school faculty, imploring them to safeguard Sana and put an end to the torment she endured. “They assured me of their commitment to protect my daughter and eradicate the bullying,” Shafiya recalls, her voice tinged with both hope and apprehension.
Shafiya’s journey has been marked by an unrelenting determination to create a safe and nurturing environment for her daughter. She remains vigilant, observing any signs of distress or relapse, and offering her unwavering support. Today, she urges other parents to be attentive to their children’s emotional well-being, imploring them to listen and communicate. “Depression can shroud a child’s world, rendering them silent and isolated. We must be their voice, their pillar of strength,” she asserts, her words resonating with a sense of purpose.
As Shafiya continues her tireless efforts to champion her daughter’s cause, she remains hopeful for a brighter future. “I yearn for a society that fosters empathy and compassion, where no child feels cornered or defeated,” she declares, her voice brimming with determination. And as she speaks these words, one cannot help but marvel at the indomitable spirit that courses through her veins, a beacon of resilience and love in a world often marred by darkness.
Trauma and Tragedies
In the realm of self-harm, traumatic experiences hold a formidable power as triggers. For Insha, a 15-year-old girl (name changed), the act of carving intricate patterns onto her skin, particularly her arms and chest, emerged as her sole means of escape from the tempestuous turmoil within. Despite her efforts to conceal them, the scars bear witness to her pain, a visible testament to her struggles. With a tapestry of marks adorning her arms, Insha opts for garments that veil her ‘battle’ scars, preferring the security of full-sleeved attire.
“I was subjected to childhood sexual abuse, a haunting spectre that drove me to seek solace through self-inflicted pain. The sight of my own blood brought a fleeting sense of relief,” she confides, her words carrying the weight of both vulnerability and a defiant longing for release. Unlike Sana, whose self-harm was discovered by her mother, it was Insha herself who bared her wounded arm to her parents, seeking their aid. “Though I found a curious solace in the process, I yearned for alternative ways to confront my pain. This is why I approached my Baba and beseeched him for assistance.”
Insha was a mere eight years old when she fell victim to the insidious crime of sexual abuse, perpetrated by one of her own blood relatives. Like countless others, she bore the burden of her torment in silence, unable to confide in anyone. It was only when she sought psychiatric help that her parents were confronted with the searing truth of her ordeal. Presently, Insha continues her arduous journey, grappling with self-harm and the enduring scars of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Regrettably, Insha’s story is far from unique. Many others share her fate, ensnared in the snares of drug abuse or self-inflicted harm. The fracturing of families and the clashes of parental discord further exacerbate the vulnerabilities of teenage girls, acting as catalysts for their self-destructive inclinations.
The Fear Factor
Saima, a young woman of seventeen (name changed), sought refuge from her anguish by consuming a multitude of sleeping pills. “I had performed poorly in my examinations, and I anticipated my family’s reaction. To evade their disappointment, I ingested four sleeping pills. The memory of how it ravaged my body still lingers,” she recounts, her words carrying the weight of her experience. Saima is 19 now. “I recall resorting to pills whenever stress or sorrow enveloped me. It was on a day when I succumbed to unconsciousness that my mother discovered me, rushing me to the hospital and extracting a promise. She implored me never to entertain such thoughts again and to confide in her.”
Saima’s inclination toward self-harm stemmed from the depths of her inner insecurity, her mother reveals. She shares her apprehension, harbouring the constant fear that disclosure would subject Saima to harsh judgment. “The mere thought of someone uncovering the truth petrified me. I was acutely aware that my daughter’s future and very life hung in the balance, thus I concealed her struggles even from her own siblings,” confides Saima’s mother.
However, Saima’s story represents merely the tip of the iceberg, for there exist, countless girls who, burdened by the weight of judgment and the fear of societal scrutiny, forgo seeking the help they so desperately need.
This landscape is often marked by an overwhelming sense of trepidation and guilt, remnants that linger long after the act itself.
“I bore witness to my parents’ incessant shouting matches,” reflected Raima (name changed), a tenth-grade student. With a yearning for tranquillity and serenity, Raima shared that peace and calmness were elusive in her household. However, it was through the screen of a television show that she glimpsed a distressing act: a man slicing his wrist. Overwhelmed by a wave of terror, she resorted to breaking her sharpener and employing its blade to carve her own arm.
“The sight of blood for the first time sent shivers down my spine,” she confessed. Days passed as Raima struggled to conceal her self-inflicted wound, grappling with a heavy burden of guilt and remorse. “I dreaded anyone discovering it, and when it inevitably left behind a scar, anxiety consumed me.”
Much like Raima, Hina (name changed) grappled with a profound sense of guilt upon beholding the scars that marred her arms. “Each time I gaze upon these scars, I berate myself. My father assures me that we can find a way to erase them,” she lamented. “I eagerly await the day when I can finally be liberated from their presence. I cannot fathom what possessed me when I inflicted this harm upon myself. Self-harm may offer a fleeting respite, but believe me, these scars endure.”
The weight of guilt often compels individuals to conceal their scars. Some opt for dermatological treatments, while others choose to adorn their wounds with tattoos.
Mubashir Bashir, a skilled tattoo artist in Kashmir, revealed that many young people seek their services to mask the marks etched upon their arms. “They provide us with a theme for the tattoo, specifically designed to conceal their scars. Both young women and men frequent our studio, although all of them are at least eighteen years old,” Mubashir shared. “While laser treatment presents an option for scar removal, it is not entirely effective. Consequently, individuals opt for tattoos as a means of concealing the remnants of their past pain.”
What is Self-Harm?
Self-harm, also known as self-injury or self-mutilation, is a deliberate act where individuals inflict damage upon their bodies. It involves cutting, burning, scratching, or other forms of harm, without the intention of ending their own lives. It is a misguided attempt to cope with emotional pain, despair, anger, or overwhelming stress.
Dr Yasir Hassan Rather, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at IMHANS Srinagar, highlights various factors that contribute to such behaviour. These include mental health issues like depression, anxiety, or unresolved emotional traumas. Feelings of low self-esteem, grief, and the weight of life’s burdens can also drive individuals towards self-harm.
“Sometimes, in the face of overwhelming circumstances, self-inflicted harm becomes a means to navigate the unexpressed and the incomprehensible,” Dr Yasir explains.
Self-harm manifests through acts of cutting, slashing, scratching, burning, and even carving words, letters, or symbols onto the skin. The injuries tend to concentrate on areas like the abdomen, legs, arms, wrists, and chest. Diagnosis involves identifying telltale signs such as scars, burns, or the possession of sharp objects like blades, sharpeners, cutters, or needles.
Dr Yasir underscores the significance of recognising warning signs associated with self-harm, such as unexplained marks, bruises on the arms and wrists, the consistent concealment of these body parts irrespective of weather conditions, withdrawal from social interactions and familial bonds, persistent feelings of desolation or depression, alterations in behaviour, as well as expressions of helplessness, hopelessness, or suicidal ideation.
Treatment and Cure
Self-harm is a grave matter that demands our utmost attention, as its repercussions extend far beyond the physical realm, impacting individuals both physically and psychologically. Dr Yasir emphasises the crucial role of timely diagnosis and appropriate treatment in addressing this issue.
The treatment modalities for self-harm behaviour vary depending on the underlying causes. Dr Yasir expounds on the most common therapeutic approaches, which encompass psychotherapy, medication, and participation in support groups. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) have proven to be effective forms of psychotherapy for individuals grappling with self-harm tendencies.
These therapeutic methods aid in identifying and managing the underlying emotions and triggers that contribute to self-harm while imparting invaluable coping skills. Medication may also be prescribed to address any concurrent mental health conditions that may be exacerbating the self-harm behaviour. Additionally, support groups provide a nurturing environment where individuals can connect with others who share similar experiences. Dr Yasir underscores the prevalence of such cases among adolescent patients in their general psychiatry OPD.
Dr Yasir emphasises the significance of fostering trust and promoting open communication when dealing with individuals who engage in self-harm behaviour. It is imperative to create a non-judgmental atmosphere where individuals feel safe and comfortable discussing their emotions and challenges. An empathetic approach, coupled with active listening, forms the cornerstone of effective engagement with such individuals.
Role of Parents and Teachers
In the intricate landscape of self-harm, parents and teachers hold significant sway over the lives of these young girls entangled in such behaviours, experts believe. Dr Yasir aptly highlights the pivotal role that parents and teachers can play in the lives of children grappling with self-harm tendencies.
Creating a safe and nurturing environment becomes paramount for parents, ensuring that their child feels secure and supported. Vigilance in observing and closely monitoring their child’s behaviour is equally crucial. Teachers, too, bear the responsibility of being attuned to any indications of self-harm, ready to respond promptly and appropriately to aid the child in need.
Besides, fostering a compassionate understanding of the child’s emotions and extending emotional support and empathy is vital for both parents and teachers. By embracing these principles, they can contribute to a compassionate and supportive network for these vulnerable young individuals.