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Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Fears and worries about self-harm

When young people harm themselves families are often worried that they may go on to die by suicide. Although there is evidence that people who have self-harmed do have a higher risk of suicide, this is a very rare event. The parents and carers we spoke to told us about different experiences of their children’s suicidal behaviour and their fears for the future.

A few of the young people had made serious attempts to kill themselves. Erica’s daughter had planned her overdose for some time. She left farewell notes and a text telling her mother that she loved her, and not to blame herself. Fiona’s son tried various different methods. Jane Z thought her daughter meant to die when she took an overdose and the only reason she didn’t try again was because she didn’t want to risk not succeeding. Susan Z’s daughter took an overdose and texted her mother to say goodbye.
 

Fiona’s son phoned her from Australia to tell her he had made another suicide attempt. She tried to make him see the effect his suicide would have on his daughter.

Fiona’s son phoned her from Australia to tell her he had made another suicide attempt. She tried to make him see the effect his suicide would have on his daughter.

Age at interview: 57
Sex: Female
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So his suicide attempts have been one of them when I had to fly to Australia was he did actually phone me that he was in a hospital, in a hotel room, he’d rented a hotel room. 

He said, “The battery is about to run out. I’m just phoning to let you know I love you, mum. This is what I’m doing.” And then the battery died and I just sat, because I mean, Sydney is a big area in Australia and I knew he was in Sydney somewhere but I didn’t know what to do. So I was just waiting for a police call to say, “This, we’ve found this body. This is the last number. Do you know who this person is?” 

But, as it happened, I got a call, in fact, from his ex-partner to say she’d had a call and he’d actually, on the hotel room, internal thing, had phoned and said he’d just injected himself and they’d called an ambulance. So she phoned and said, “He’s in intensive care, you know. Can you get over here.” So those, you know, he’s been very serious when he’s done it, which, as I say, is purely, in my case, by the grace of god I believe he has, you know, he, because the things he’s done. He’s never actually jumped so he’s never sort of broken anything but he has been on buildings and I have talked to him for an hour and a half on, at times, talking him down and just trying to sort of just get him to hold, you know, hold on to the fact that would he want, you know, his, look what his dad has done in his life. Would he want his daughter growing up knowing that her father had killed himself and feeling the guilt that he goes through?

Because, even though she’s very young, she’s three at the moment, she would find out about it and she, because children do, would think it was something to do with her. 

And sort of trying to get through the complete mania that that seems to get into their mind when they want to kill themselves and it’s, because they’re past thinking about, it’s no good you know, “Do you know what this is doing to me?” I never tried that because I don’t think that would have worked so it’s trying to touch something in him.
 

Joanne’s daughter didn’t want to live anymore. She was saved from suicide by passers-by.

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Joanne’s daughter didn’t want to live anymore. She was saved from suicide by passers-by.

Age at interview: 44
Sex: Female
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Other things she’s done is she’s taken overdoses. She’s had an overdose of it was her sleeping tablets. That was one of them. The latest one we’ve had is she took [painkillers], despite me locking everything away and having the key with me. 

She’s told us that she can’t go out the house and she hasn’t been able to go out of the house on her own but she’s still managed to do this. She did this, managed to get on a train down to the coast and took the [pills] and then was stopped from jumping off a cliff by some passers-by. So that’s why.

Gosh, yes.

She’s in hospital now. 

And why do you think she was doing that?

She doesn’t want to live anymore.

Yes.

She’s been in and out of hospital so many times that there just doesn’t seem to be a solution. 
Several parents talked about times when their children threatened suicide or had suicidal thoughts. Debbie was distraught when her daughter told her that she had written down plans to kill herself. When Joanna’s daughter was depressed ‘she was fighting suicide on an hourly basis. She had to really work hard not to kill herself’. Until her daughter admitted to a clinician that she had suicidal thoughts Gwendoline never dreamt that she felt so bad. ‘She seemed such a happy child’, Gwendoline told us. Some parents weren’t sure whether their child wanted to die, while others thought they didn’t mind whether they lived or died. ‘I think she was ambivalent,’ Liz said of her daughter’s overdose. ‘Did she want to die? I don’t think she really knew. I think she was desperate for something but I don’t think she really knew if she wanted to die or not.’ Alexis’s daughter told her she didn’t want to kill herself, but she wanted the ‘stuff in her head to stop’. Alexis told us ‘I don’t believe for a moment that she wanted to die. She said she didn’t want to die but it got too painful.’
 

Nicky and her daughter disagreed about why she made her three ‘suicide attempts’, but Nicky is worried that if she tries again she might die.

Nicky and her daughter disagreed about why she made her three ‘suicide attempts’, but Nicky is worried that if she tries again she might die.

Age at interview: 48
Sex: Female
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And do you think that she wanted to die at those times?

Definitely not in the first one. We have a significant disagreement over the second one because she says she wanted to and I always say, you know, “In the thirty minutes between your CPN leaving and you getting an ambulance, that is not serious. If you’d have been really serious, you wouldn’t have phoned your best mate up and gone, ‘oh guess what I’ve done.’” And she always says, “That was a really serious attempt and I really wanted to die.” And me and her CPN are going like, “Yeah, right.” Not that we’d do that to her face but in terms of, she and I have had a bit of a disagreement over it.

The final one, I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. I think it was probably the most serious of the three in terms of intent. She has said to me, and this is, this is something that, this is one of those things where you think, “In a way I’m pleased that you can share it with me but, as a parent, I’d really rather you hadn’t” moments is, is, she has said to me, “I will never try to kill myself again, mum.” She said, “Because if I do it, I’ll do it for real because it will be that I don’t want to go on living.”

And that that’s a very hard thing to hear, as a parent, but, as I say, I’m, I suppose in a way, it’s some comfort to know that she has voluntarily told me that she’s not going to, I’m trying to think of a polite way of putting this because I know it’s being recorded and I’m struggling, she’s not going to mess around again with attempts that are, are or could be perceived as a cry for help.

It’s do it or, it’s literally, I think she, you know, her view is kind of it’s do it or die. Do it and die or don’t do it at all is where she is in in terms of that but I, as a parent, I hope it never gets there.

Do you worry about that?

Oh yes. I mean on a, on a scale of, we had this conversation the other week, when we were talking about, I said, “You, you need to get back into therapy. This is nice mummy has gone away, bully mummy is out in force.” You will get some therapy or else, was where we ended up and I said to her, she said, “But I don’t need you to worry about me.” And I said, “But love, it comes with the job description, you know. As parent.” I said, “As a parent, you always worry.” 
 

Philip was scared by his son’s threats of suicide but wasn’t sure if he really wanted to die.

Philip was scared by his son’s threats of suicide but wasn’t sure if he really wanted to die.

Age at interview: 59
Sex: Male
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So are you worried that he might go on to commit suicide?

We still are. It’s perhaps a relief that he’s never done it without signalling it loud and clear and really rather making an event of it and I think that’s what gives us comfort that we, that he, it’s probably not really the first thing he wants to do. It’s really, it’s just an extreme cry of pain, in a way.

Yes.

But we can’t discount it, I mean, it’s, to start off with he was talking about throwing himself off bridges but we had a think and realised that the nearest bridges are really quite a long way away and not readily accessible and it’s not it’s not quite as easy as he thought. But he picked up a bottle of weed killer one day and threatened to pour it into a glass and drink it.

And had to be restrained from that. For a long time, I don’t know whether he still does, he carried a rope around. I think he was thinking of hanging himself and it’s ninety per cent play acting I think but it’s our only son.

Yes.

And he had, there’s so much he could do.

Yes, but he hasn’t actually done anything that would seriously harm him.

No. We think he may, I think my wife thinks he may have tried to hang himself at one stage but we don’t know quite the details of that. We’re sort of nervous to ask and it hasn’t happened again and it didn’t work and we hope we’ve persuaded him, actually, killing yourself is pretty much guaranteed to be unpleasant, pretty much not guaranteed to be successful and isn’t as easy as he thinks. And I hope he’s intelligent enough, I hope the intelligent side of him will take that.

But the fact that he’s thinking about it is still deeply scary.
Anna was sure that her daughter was not suicidal. ‘I know that she falls into high risk categories,’ she told us, ‘But no, she’s never really expressed any intent to [take her own life], the only thing she talks about is what she wants to do with her life. And that’s been consistent all the way through. She’s always had career goals.’

Fiona, Annette and Joanna vividly expressed the fear that their child might die by suicide. Fiona said even when her son was doing well, ‘there’s this constant, when the phone rings, you get that instant, “Is it to do with that [suicide]?”' Joanna told us she worried about it ‘Every day, when I don’t get a text from her or when she sleeps for too long…This is absolute, nearly an expectation.’ However, Gwendoline was reassured when her daughter said she would never act on her thoughts of suicide. Jane S and Nick didn’t think their children wanted to die, but were concerned that they might accidentally go too far. ‘I think I was more worried about unintentional, sort of cutting going wrong than I was about actually her taking her own life but you can never be sure’ Jane said. Some parents told us how they tried to persuade their children not to attempt suicide. 
 

Annette ‘felt the loss of her son’ even though he hadn’t died. She couldn’t accept that he didn’t want to be alive.

Annette ‘felt the loss of her son’ even though he hadn’t died. She couldn’t accept that he didn’t want to be alive.

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
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You know, there was many times, I had felt the loss of him, even though I hadn’t lost him. It was quite traumatic yeah, because I was waiting for death and yet I couldn’t accept death and there was no way I was going to accept death and I would do everything I could within my power to actually keep him alive but he didn’t want to be alive. His negative thinking was that he was more, better off not being here than living the life he was living and I couldn’t understand that. A person that’s so full of life [laughs] wanting to not live, you know, why? Why would you want to do that? 

Anyway, I didn’t understand it and mainly, also I couldn’t accept it. How could I accept that? No way. I brought this child into the world. I couldn’t accept that. 
 

When her daughter threatened to kill herself Sandra did her best to stop her

When her daughter threatened to kill herself Sandra did her best to stop her

Age at interview: 49
Sex: Female
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And there was one time she was having, she had a hospital appointment but it was for to do with her facial situation and that was like a follow-up appointment and she was just stuck in the car. She wouldn’t come out and she was being really dramatic that day, “I’m going to do this to myself. I’m going to hang.” No, she didn’t say “I’m going to hang.” She said, “I want to die, you know. It’s come to this time. I can’t go on anymore. I’ve had enough.” And I was just getting that all way driving to the hospital. It was just so distressing. I had to drive very slow. I had drivers honking their horns and I’m thinking, “If I go too fast, I’ll probably lose concentration and I’ll crash the car or something.” So I had to drive slow, concentrate but, at the same time, pay attention to what she’s saying but not giving in to it at the same time and then I managed to get myself into the car park and she was just she was just going on and on about the same thing. And then she said to me, “Mum, I need a piece of paper. I need to write my will. I need to do this. I need to write a letter for my sister.” She said, “This is it. I’m going to jump over this fence. I’m going to finish it. I can’t take it no more. I can’t face any doctors. I’m sick and tired of hospitals. I’m sick of my life. I’m sick of everything.” 

And I thought, “Oh my god, what do I do?” You know, I’m in a public car park, you know. People don’t know what’s going on. If I try to, I’m not even going to try and pull her out of the car because she’ll try, she’s quite a big girl and I’m not going to shout at her because then it’ll just escalate the situation. So I had to just be very calm and think about what I was doing but she was just going on and on. She wouldn’t get out of the car. She was just, you know, saying all sorts of things. 

Anyway, I got her the paper and she wrote some stuff on there and she said to her sister, “I love you, you know. I’m sorry I’ve got to leave you but the time has come for me to die. I need to, I just need to go. I need to go. I need to end this life.” And I thought, so then after she wrote it I said to her, you know, “Have you thought about the impact it’s going to have on your sister?” I said, “Your sister dotes on you. She loves you. She worships the ground you walk on, you walk on.” And I said, “If you were to take your life or end your life, it would be so destroying for her.” And then she said to me, “Oh Mummy, I never thought of that.” 

And then she started coming to herself but then after that, she started back again, the whole drama again and I thought, “You know what? I’m just going to get the bull by the horn and I’m just going to say what she’s saying.” And I said to her, “Well, if you take your life, I’m going to take mine too.” You know, I said, “We’ll just do a pact and we’ll do it together.” And then she says, “Oh no Mum. You can’t do that. You’ve got to think about, you know, my sister and who’s going to look after her.” She says, “I know you’ve got, I know that Daddy is there but.” She says, “He’s not going to cope.” She says, “You are the maintenance person in the family. You keep things going. You are the strong one. So…” She says, “You can’t take your life. You’ve got to look after my sister.” And I thought, “Yeah, something’s working.” And then she says, “Mum, you know what? Let’s go home.” She says, “I’m not going to this appointment today. I can’t face anybody. Just take me home.” 

And that’s what I did. So I turned the car round, took her home and she was calm and she went to her bedroom and she just went to sleep and then when she woke up, some few hours later, she came downstairs, came and hugged me and she says to me, “Mum, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry for all the things I’ve said today and.” She says, “Yes, I do feel like I want to end this life. I do feel at times I do want to go but,” she said, “What’s the point? If you take your life, you’re committing a sin.” She said, “It’s not good. It’s not right is it, you know, to take one’s life.” And then she started thinking again and then she said, “And, you know, and then I think about my life and I do want to help people. I do want to be a solicitor. I do want to study law. I do want to get good grades. I do want to, you know, be somebody in life but.” But she said, “Mum, it’s a struggle.” And then I said to her, “Yes, darling, I do understand.” And I said, “I do understand it’s a struggle, every day is a struggle.” And she said, I said to her, “When you’re going through your highs, I’m there with you. When you’re going through your lows, I’m there with you. I’m with you a hundred per cent and.” I said, “Even at times, when you’re having a headache, my head is hurting me too but I just don’t tell you because that’s what mums do.” I says, “But,” I said to her, “That I’m glad. I’m glad that you’ve had a reality check and, you know, you’ve thought about things and.” I said, “Let’s just take one day at a time. Let’s just take one day at a time. Don’t think too much into the future, just take one day at a time and let’s see how things go.” And that’s how I’ve been dealing with her on a day to day basis. So if the next day she gets up and she talks about, you know, wanting to take her life or she doesn’t want to be here no more, I’ll just say to her, “You know what? It’s a new day. It’s a new season. Let’s see how the day goes.” You know, and then because I’m being positive she won’t talk about wanting to take her life no more. 
 

Mary spent many hours trying to convince her son not to kill himself.

Mary spent many hours trying to convince her son not to kill himself.

Age at interview: 62
Sex: Female
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Yes and are you worried that he might do something more dangerous?

I am worried about the suicide, yes. He obsesses about the need to kill himself. He goes, well, he says he doesn’t talk to me about it too often but, actually, he does. He keeps saying there’s no alternative. I’ve spent so many hours in the last couple of years talking him down, saying, “You don’t really want to and it wouldn’t be fair on us.” I’m ruthless in using moral blackmail because, if it stops him, what’s far more upsetting than self-harming is sort of standing with your arms crossed, leaning against the front door, saying, “You’re not going out to kill yourself. You don’t really want to do it.” “Yes, I do.” And that is, again, it’s one of these things, you vacillate between thinking, “Ah, not again. This is so boring.” And, at the same time, you’re terrified and I don’t think it’s occurred to him to do anything physically more serious. He doesn’t like being hurt. The initial pain of the shallow scratches act as a catharsis.

But he doesn’t like pain. He admits he’s afraid of pain. We have worked very hard to try and convince him that, if he tries to commit suicide, he’s likely to end up damaging himself but not killing himself and he goes through different phases of how he’s going to do it and he was sort of talking about jumping off a bridge, at one time. And I would sort of say, “Well, you realise that the most likely thing to happen is you’ll end up in a wheelchair.” [Laughs]. Completely ruthless but anything to try and stop him. But again, I still don’t know how serious he is about whether he’s going to. I don’t see how you can tell.

I’m advised you can’t tell.
Parents sometimes grew to understand their children's suicidal feelings and behaviour a bit better by reading, reflecting on their own experiences, or being provoked into looking at things in a different way.
 

Annette was annoyed when a psychiatrist asked her son about suicidal plans, but he helped her understand what her son was feeling.

Annette was annoyed when a psychiatrist asked her son about suicidal plans, but he helped her understand what her son was feeling.

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
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I do remember feeling opposed to his approach towards my son because he asked him how he was going to plan, you know, his suicide and I was actually quite annoyed about it. There I was trying to make my son live and he was actually talking to him like it was okay and it wasn’t. In my eyes, it wasn’t okay.

And I think that’s part of the consultation, I hadn’t had a consultation about what happens with people, who suffer with suicide, and when the psychiatrist spoke it was coming from a different angle for me because I was coming from the side of living and he was coming from the side of experience of suicide and how you can deal with it. So for me, it was actually quite annoying to hear somebody tell my son it’s okay but then he did speak to me, the psychiatrist, and he said to me, “Would you be happy to see your son suffering if he was suffering cancer?” 

And, at that point, I actually remember thinking, “No, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t really want to see him suffering and if he’s in that much pain, no.” I really, really would not because suicide is pain. It is like cancer, you know, they do suffer. They suffer a lot so much that, that’s their answer, even though it’s not a right one, because if it was right then we’d all be doing it and, you know, we wouldn’t have a world. So it is a wrong one, even though at the time they think it’s right. 

But yeah, I mean him saying that, at the time, I was quite opposed to it but then when he mentioned how it was for [my son], I realised that my son was in a great, intense amount of pain. And it was an opening for me and it was a doorway too because I thought I finally understand what my son’s going through and now I have to either come to terms that one day, when I’m not with him that he will go, or just live through, you know, what hope I have for him. 
 

Vicki has thought and read a lot about suicide. She realises it is hard to prevent and hopes that therapy will help her daughter to avoid feeling suicidal in response to bad experiences.

Vicki has thought and read a lot about suicide. She realises it is hard to prevent and hopes that therapy will help her daughter to avoid feeling suicidal in response to bad experiences.

Age at interview: 44
Sex: Female
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You do worry, you do think, oh god, what if anything else bad happens? Will it tip them over the edge and, you know, that the thoughts of suicide, that that’s a big worry and just makes you a little bit more sensitive to everything and you feel a bit more protective and questioning of your parenting skills and that kind of thing. So yeah, I think it’s the, it’s a general overall global impact. It has it has an effect on everything in the in the family life when you’ve got somebody who’s struggling like that, it’s tough. It makes everyone sort of a little bit more on edge and a little bit your stress levels do rise, yeah, definitely. 

Have you come across in your reading an association between self-harm and suicide?

I have read that a lot of the time that self-harming actually prevents the suicide – it’s a coping mechanism but also there are incidences of people who commit suicide have been self-harming in in the past. So that there is a relationship but it doesn’t necessarily mean that if you self-harm you’re more prone to suicide. That’s what I’ve learnt. 

Very nice summary of that literature but I was just wondering how that affected your own fears for, about suicide that you’ve that you’ve mentioned.

I had a boyfriend who committed suicide once and that actually caused me to process a lot of my own thoughts around it. Initially, I felt very, very responsible and, as time has gone on, I realise that I couldn’t have prevented it. I did a lot of reading and stuff around suicide at that at that time and yes, I know that that no matter what is happening, what, no matter what how much you try and influence somebody, if somebody is hell bent on suicide then then they’re going to do it and you can’t you can’t be responsible. And this is something I’ve told her as well about her friend who has taken the overdose and thinks about suicide it’s, you will never be, never blame yourself. You will feel guilty, of course you will, but it will never be your fault. And obviously, when I’m thinking about my daughter, I can rationalise it that it wouldn’t be my fault if she ever did commit suicide but it still wouldn’t make it better. It’s still something that I want to prevent and I’m hoping that the therapy will help her before it ever gets to that sort of point.


Last reviewed December 2017.
 

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