Self-harm or suicidal behaviour

A few of the parents and carers we spoke to told us about experiences of their children’s self-harming and suicidal behaviour. In this section, you can find out about their experiences.

Self-harm is not uncommon in young people and trans and gender diverse young people are more likely to self-harm than other people their age (Stonewall, 2017). Self-harm describes the act of intentionally damaging or injuring your own body. It can be a way of coping with or expressing overwhelming emotional distress. While some people who self-harm are at a high risk of suicide, many of those who self-harm do not want to end their lives. (NHS, 2020).

Research shows that ‘more than four in five trans young people (84 per cent) have self-harmed’ and ‘more than two in five trans young people (45 per cent) have attempted to take their own life’ (Stonewall, 2017). Many parents and carers we spoke to were aware of this heightened risk for trans and gender diverse young people.

Ross talks about self-harm. He thinks it’s widespread in trans young people and that there are many parents of trans children in online groups whose children self-harm.

Both Ali and Lesley spoke about the importance of their children not being able to express their gender identity and the impact that had on their wellbeing. They saw it as a factor in their children’s self-harming and suicidal behaviour. Ali described how it took her daughter a long time to share her distress around her gender identity with her and with her daughter’s therapist. She said: ‘I was very aware that they [CAMHS] had a very limited timeframe and we did feel very much that we were on a programme of 12 weeks in and out, and you had to be sorted by then. She still hadnt told me at that point what the problem was. Although, I was starting to get a feel for it.’ Lesley emphasised that her son’s referral to the Gender Identity Development Services happened ‘partly, because, there was a lot of increase in dysphoria and ,he’d made several attempts to take his life.’ She added that ‘there was lots of things like self-harm and overdose type stuff going on’ and that she felt that ‘part of it, was around him being trans and it not being supported and validated in that way.’

Ali speaks about her daughter’s mental health issues, figuring out how gender identity might be part of the problem and the difficulties she had trying to access support for her daughter.

However, not everyone we spoke to felt that their child’s gender identity was the most important factor. For Kate, the mental health services placed too much weight on her son being trans. She said: ‘with thoughts of suicide, they put that all down to being trans.’ She also emphasised that ‘he doesn’t feel that it’s all down to him being trans.’ Other parents who had experience of their child self-harming or suicidal behaviour, felt that these were part of their child’s wider problems. For example, Ross emphasised bullying at school and the relationship between his child and their mother as negatively affecting their mental health.

Kate talks about her son’s self-harm and suicidal thoughts and how mental health services assumed it was because he was trans.

Self-harm by a young person can have a very serious impact on those who care for them. Both Ross and Ali emphasised the worry and stress caused by their young persons’ self-harm. Ali shared that it was ‘heart-breaking’ and ‘horrible to have to go and count knives every night to make sure, theyre still there.’

Ross talked about the anguish he felt ‘You go in the morning, pull back the duvet to see if theyre alive, almost every morning… Are they still there in the morning. Its not good.’ He also spoke about the importance of peer support and the online forum for parents of trans and gender diverse young people where he could chat to others. He observed: ‘In the wee hours when youre wondering whether theyve self-harmed and youre sitting up awake, because you cant get to sleep. You can chat to other people on there, the only reason theyre up at three oclock in the morning is cause theyre worried about their child [self-harming].’

Read more about support for parents of trans and gender diverse young people or trans and gender diverse children’s mental health and wellbeing. You can also find out about parents experience of self-harm in young people.

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