I love going to conferences and getting stuck in research. I think it stems from my MSc, but also, it informs my practice and work with young people & colleagues. Keeping a hand in research is really useful for churches to help know what's going on, but also to see how it can inform their ministries.
The latest conference I went to was the Judy Dunn National Conference into Self-harm and Suicide run by the Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health. It was great to hear from Professors and practitioners in this specific area of mental health, so I am going to do my best to condense all that information into a few key points that could be relevant for your church.
- There is evidence for increasing rates of self-harm and suicide over the last 20 years. We know this as the media has recently been publicising the crisis in young people's and men's mental health, but the research is backing it. A meta-analysis (looking at loads of research papers together) from 2012 has the prevalence of self-harm in adolescents at 17.2%, then at 13.4% in young adults.
Unfortunately, the age of these stats imply that there are probably more adolescents becoming young adults, who are becoming adults and so these numbers could be higher. Therefore, we need to have a greater awareness of what self-harm is, so we can be more able to support the 5th of our church who self-harm or have experienced it.
- We need to be in tune with our young people and put better support in place for them. Research has the age of onset of self-harm at 13.9 years, which is roughly the same for suicidal ideation. This means that our children's and youth ministries are the front line of support.
Just cutting once can be an indicator of later anxiety disorders, so we may need to develop their ability to handle stress and to recognise & process emotions.
- Specifically for those who have Borderline Personality Disorder or PTSD, the amygdala is overactive. This overactiveness could come from early trauma or stress and affects their emotional regulation. These individuals experience higher levels of tension and greater emotional fluctuation, and self-harm can reduce these levels of stress.
Social pain has been linked the same part of the brain as physical pain, so social exclusion and those feelings of rejection can be felt in a physical way, which was an interesting development.
It's not all doom and gloom though. Individuals who have treatment (medication, psychotherapy, DBT) and are in remission from self-harm see amygdala activity and pain thresholds returning to normal. This is really new research, so there's nothing beyond a year point, but it's a hopeful start that certain treatments can really help.
- Those with High Functioning Autism are at a much higher risk for completed suicide. This is due to their ability to mask issues, or they will behave in ways that may camouflage how they are really feeling. It may be harder to bring hope into their lives depending on how they view and interact with the world.
This is where getting to know individuals really well and meeting them where they are at can be a real support mechanism that they may never get elsewhere.
- Along with DBT, there's evidence that improving our mentalisation skills. This helps make behaviours understandable, forms the basis of self-awareness and sensitivity to others. This is about peeling off the layers and getting curious about what's happening under the behaviours.
For our young people, many of them may hypermentalise, going into way too much depth about what other people are thinking about them and therefore responding in ways that seem illogical or OTT. We need to help our teens slow down so that they can better process their emotions before responding.
- The Charlie Waller Memorial Trust have been developing their resources and training to reach a wider audience. The have loads of free resources and have training packages that can be embedded into workplaces, schools etc and they are hoping to do more.
They really want to change the current scary media discourse so that people feel more encouraged to open up and seek support, or feel more confident to have those chats and signpost where necessary.
I hope this is useful as a quick overview into the latest research into self-harm and suicide. Hopefully in next few weeks I can unpack more of this into more in depth information and resources, so watch this space!