E Jane Dickson: A generation that must control its expectations

Who is helped by the scandalised cataloguing of every scratch on Amy Winehouse's poor body?
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The Independent Online

"The only antidote to mental suffering," said Karl Marx, " is physical pain." It wasn't true when he said it, and it's not true now, but it has a kind of catchy authority, catchy enough, at any rate for Marx to be included with Princess Diana and Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers in a pantheon of self-harmers on a website devoted to the cult of self-injury.

It's the kind of website that freezes a mother's blood. There's an awful, gothic glamour to the blades and barbed wire framing the image of a slender young woman, black hair fastidiously mussed, white skin badged with blood. It looks a lot like porn. You'd like to look away but page after page of "testimony" – "how will you know I'm hurting, if you cannot see my pain?" – compels your horrified interest. There's nothing new in teenagers writing angst-ridden poetry; the sub-Plath phase is, for many, an essential part of growing up. There is something hugely disturbing, however, in teenagers expressing themselves, literally, in blood.

According to a survey commissioned this week by the NHS, a staggering one in three girls aged 11 to 19 in the UK have tried to harm themselves. Some 73 per cent of young people who self-harmed admitted to cutting, 48 per cent to punching themselves, 14 per cent to burning themselves and 10 per cent to self-poisoning. Dr David Kingsley, consultant psychiatrist for Affinity, the mental healthcare provider which carried out the research, believes it is a growing problem. "We need to ask ourselves what it is about modern living," he said, " that is causing such stress for our youngsters."

If British parents weren't already sleepless with worry over teen suicide rates (which are not conclusively linked to self harming) and the United Nations' finding, in 2007, that UK children are the unhappiest in the Western world, you might call it a wake-up call. As ever, our startled response is to call for greater public awareness of the problem. Which is certainly a start. And, indeed, for every heartbreaking chatroom presenting self-harm as a manageable lifestyle choice there are sites hosted by responsible agencies offering advice and support to the victims of self-harm and their families.

But public awareness in our celebrity-crazed age must be carefully managed. The Affinity research is doubtless correct in pinpointing stress and low self-esteem as prime factors in the rise of self-harming. There is, however, considerable anecdotal evidence, particularly from teachers in secondary schools, that the copycat factor also plays its part. The idea that some teenagers might choose self-harming because it is the rebellion du jour is horrible, but it cannot comfortably be dismissed.

Clearly, the risks and incidence of this most worrying phenomenon must not be minimised, but there is a thin line between public awareness and public collusion. Who is helped by the scandalised cataloguing of every new scratch on Amy Winehouse's poor body? Certainly not Ms Winehouse, and I can't think it's hugely helpful to the teenage fans who see her as a symbol of bohemian revolt. To hoist this disturbed young woman on the scaffold of public awareness as some kind of scarecrow warning to self-harmers is disingenuous and fantastically unkind.

It's also downright dangerous, lending the issue precisely the kind of soiled glamour most likely to attract other disturbed young women. You might catch "dabblers" with an awareness campaign appealing directly to vanity (the Japanese government, in an effort to stem its teen suicide epidemic, has just released a public information film about the fact that the homemade toxic gas used by hundreds of young people to kill themselves leaves the body horribly disfigured), but it would be a high risk, not to say foolhardy, strategy when the problem of self-harming is already so closely bound to self-image.

Which leaves us, I guess, with parental responsibility – increasingly, it seems, our last resort. Like any addictive behaviour, and it can, by expert accounts, all too easily become addictive, self-harming is cloaked in secrecy and denial. God knows teenagers are jealous enough of their privacy, but if we have to add checking for unexplained cuts and bruises to covert (or not so covert) breath-checking and clothes – sniffing in our list of things parents do to annoy children, it's a smallish price to pay.

More importantly, we need, as Dr Kingsley says, to address the root of the vaulting stress levels faced by our children. And while it may be true that many of the problems facing young people today are societal, this is surely a case for micro-management. If the culture of micro-celebrity fostered by social networking websites is putting undue pressure on our children, we need to turn the damned machines off and teach our children to manage their expectations. We need to explain that the generation of amazingly popular, amazingly talented people on Facebook and Bebo exists only in cyberspace and that there is strictly no need – nor any possibility – of universal peer approval. Fundamentally, we need to teach our children that nobody is happy all the time.

There are children who have truly terrible things to contend with in their lives, for whom cutting themselves is a release from worse pain. Most teens, however, are a bit sad a bit of the time. It's a fact. It's not always a problem, and it shouldn't be mythologised. Public awareness in these instances can go only so far. It's the personal awareness that counts.