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Tracey

Age at interview: 52
Brief Outline: Tracey thinks the roots of her teenage son’s self-harming lie in his early childhood, but she sees it as a complex experience with no easy answers.
Background: Tracey is 52, married with two children. She works as a human resources officer. Ethnic background: White British.

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Tracey thinks that her son's epilepsy affected his development as a child, leading him to feel different from his peers and to be teased unkindly if not actually bullied. She feels that these and other difficulties led to what she calls a breakdown, when her son confided in the school nurse. It was at this point that he disclosed that the scratches on his arms were self-inflicted. He has continued to self-harm throughout a period of intervention from CAMHS but less frequently in recent months. Her son has not described the reasons for his self-harming but Tracey thinks it is a way for him to express feelings that he can't express in other ways and that it gives him a sense of control.

Tracey talks about other aspects of her son’s life and behaviour which she finds troubling, including recently starting smoking and using cannabis, and which are causing a lot of disturbance and distress in the family. Tracey has found support through talking to other parents online, to friends and family members and from reading internet blogs and other sites. She has also had counselling through a scheme at work, which she has found very useful in helping her to maintain a balanced outlook.

Although her son has received treatment from the GP for depression, and specialist intervention from CAMHS, Tracy feels that service provision for young people who self-harm is inadequate. She feels that more work needs to be done in schools to raise awareness of self-harm and for schools to know how to respond in a helpful way. She also thinks that there should be more scope for intervention at an early stage.

Tracey encourages other parents not to blame themselves for their children’s self harming; she sees it as a complex experience with no easy answers. She advises to stay as strong as you can, to nurture yourself and to try and keep talking about it so that you can understand what the young person is going through.
 

Tracy, her mother and grandmother have all suffered from depression.

Tracy, her mother and grandmother have all suffered from depression.

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Could you say a bit more about what you called the predisposition to depressive illness in your family and where that comes from?

I think it’s just a clinical, it’s a, it is a clinical thing that was with my grandmother, was with my mother and is obviously, with me, possibly has been passed on. 

And how did you know about it in your grandmother and your mother? How did that, what was your experience of that?

Well, I saw it. I witnessed it, you know, and I saw, I’ve seen my mother in very, a very, very depressed state actually. She was unhappy sometimes during my childhood but that was, again, to make the distinction that wasn’t necessarily depression. Later on, in her adult life, she found, she just became I think overwhelmed sometimes by her own emotions and by things that were happening in life. And again, perhaps because of her make-up had a predisposition where in other people it may not cause depression but in my grandmother and my mother and certainly me would cause depression because it becomes, yeah, overwhelming. 
 

Tracey’s son was very upset by a friend’s suicide but she hopes he will realise that suicide isn’t the answer.

Tracey’s son was very upset by a friend’s suicide but she hopes he will realise that suicide isn’t the answer.

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And now, in recent months, a boy that he knew from a group of school friends actually did take his own life and our son ended up getting very, very upset, upset doesn’t seem to, you know, it’s not sufficient a word to say. It was just a, for the young people involved it was a really traumatic distressing time and a big shock and they were laying tributes down locally at a sort of , they had like a memorial spot for him. And my son also went to the funeral and there is someone who actually carried this, you know, they actually carried it through and took their own life and I wonder sometimes if my son hasn’t had that awful realisation that that might have been him and that awful realisation that seeing the consequences and the tragedy that, you know, that it really isn’t the answer. And that there are things in life that are worth living for really so maybe, I don’t know, I’m speculating there but maybe that that’s been a big factor in his life as well
 

When Tracey was able to put her own emotions aside it helped her son.

When Tracey was able to put her own emotions aside it helped her son.

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I think that having got over the initial shock of it all and kind of hoping that it was a bit of one off, I kind of, we kind of settled into, well, let’s hope that doesn’t happen again or he might, you know, he might be able to sort of come through this. It did happen again and I did overreact and I was angry and I called him a stupid boy. It was it was my own feelings of anger and frustration coming out that he could actually do this to himself and, as his parent, standing by and actually watching that hurt me physically and emotionally, perhaps in a similar way to how it had it had actually hurt my son.

And I can see now, looking at that, that it didn’t help at all and that the advice is right and I think the next time I dealt with it, I just, when I noticed, because again he does try, he has tried to hide it a lot of the time, when I did notice, I just said, “Oh, you know, I see there are some marks on your arm again, you know. Do you want to do you want to talk about it?” And handled it much better because I do think that if you can if you can try as a parent to contain your own anger and emotions or upset, fear, frustration, sadness. It’s a very, very sad thing. I felt very sad and really sad to see my son suffering physically in this way and finding, you know, finding clothes with blood on them. It’s very, very sad but if you, you know, as a parent, if you can try to put your own emotions aside and not judge as well the young person, I feel that really does help. And that might have helped us to get to a position where my son has been able to be a little more open about this with us. We’re a long way from being out of the woods altogether, I would say, but I think we’re in a different place to where we were.
 

Tracey found common sense advice on websites where people talked about their experiences of self-harm.

Tracey found common sense advice on websites where people talked about their experiences of self-harm.

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I still would say, have a look, see what’s there, see what other people are saying, experiencing, what’s helping them, is it changing, is it, you know, particular circumstances that are causing it. Just have a look and see what other people are saying, what other experiences people are having and I think the sort of step-by-step advice about what are often quite common sense things because, at the end of the day, it isn’t the, the answer lies with the young person really and I think that’s it and the family. For the young person, they are making choices and they’re going to make a lot of wrong ones and we can talk to them until we’re blue in the face and, believe me, we do and some days you think you’re in an, you know, you know, an alternative universe somewhere because, you know, you’re constantly, constantly, constantly on this track of, “You know if you do that, that might happen. You know if you do that, that might happen. So think about it, [name] and try not to do it again.” “Yeah, okay.” Happens again the next day [laughs] and it just goes on and on and on. 

So in the end, all you can do is, you know, there is good advice and sometimes what that, the thing about going onto the websites is you’re so embroiled in it emotionally, you’re tired and you’re anxious and you have all the other things going on, sometimes to see some detached common sense advice actually does help to clarify certain things in your mind and, “Oh yes, I know that makes sense.” And it helps you to reinforce things but, at the end of the day, you’ve only got your own resolve and how you can do your best to try to deal with things on an informed basis and I think that helps you to do it on an informed basis.
 

Tracey’s son’s behaviour led to family arguments and caused huge stress.

Tracey’s son’s behaviour led to family arguments and caused huge stress.

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And we’re trying to get, you know, we’re trying to get help for him. We’re trying to, you know, he’s being counselled a little bit at he’s having pastoral care at college. But I think he’s just opting out really and just being an extremely difficult person to be around a lot of the time and I’m just kind of hoping that that doesn’t start to manifest itself again with, you know, with more self-harming. If it does, something we have to deal with but I think we, you know, we’re all trying to find a way. We’re all trying to sort of orienteer our way round all these problems without [sighs] with the least possible impact on our son’s sort of sort of, you know, emotional well-being really. And that’s difficult because what you want to do really, what your instinct is often is to get very, very angry, you know. There’s been a lot of angry outbursts lately, quite a bit of shouting, quite a bit of door slamming, storming off and angry text messages and this sort of thing. So that’s another aspect of his young life that we’re now currently dealing with which is causing problems of its own.

Is that him door slamming or you door slamming?

I think all of us are doing it. 

And I just feel as if, you know, there are lots and lots of issues still that are concerning that, as a parent, you can feel that you’re constantly on red alert, I know from my own experience as well that that has led to me becoming very, very stressed and to my husband becoming very stressed.

And us again, dealing with it very differently and perhaps our daughter just feeling resentful, possibly a little neglected maybe and our daughter having troubles of her own at twenty, not having gone to university and trying to secure employment. There are a lot of issues going on for her as well, which all require quite a lot of emotional investment, if you like, which again challenge your reserves and can cause you to become, well, actually, very, very stressed, as I said. So you’re dealing with this stress on a on a daily, weekly basis wondering when if it’s all going to end. And that’s not really how back in the day when I, you know, considered family life, this isn’t really what I’d hoped for but it’s what we’ve got and, you know, we love our children. We want them to grow up as, well, happy, happy, hopefully happy and well-adjusted individuals. That’s what we want. When we go through periods of instability and unhappiness to the extent that, in my son’s case he has with the self-harming, then you just you just worry and you just feel so anxious that, you know, everything is going to turn out all right in the end.
 

Tracey called the police when her son went missing. She was pleased with how they acted when he was found.

Tracey called the police when her son went missing. She was pleased with how they acted when he was found.

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The police were very good to him. They spoke to him and they told him that this is this is where he needed to be. This is where he was safe. He was protected. He was looked after, although he might feel he hated us, you know. He might he might feel that we hated him, in fact, you know, this was his kind of safe haven, if you like, the place he needed to know he could come back to and not, almost as well, “Don’t be so silly, lad. You know, who’s put those clothes on your back? Your mum and your dad have. Of course they don’t hate you, you know, stay here.” Sort of thing and we had a bit of a difficult night with him that night and it wasn’t the last time he, he disappeared again after that but he went to a friend’s house and the friend’s mother kept me in touch.
 

For Tracey work was a welcome distraction though sometimes it was a struggle. She was given counselling support.

For Tracey work was a welcome distraction though sometimes it was a struggle. She was given counselling support.

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I think also, looking after yourself, looking after your own sort of mental and physical health is really, really important and I sought help myself and had some had some counselling support. I was fortunate enough to get that from through work because I carried on working, for me work was a very useful distraction from all these things that were going on but it could also be a problem because I struggled to have the emotional energy to cope with work as well as everything that was going on with home. And I spoke to people at work about that and, eventually, got some help and I think I was very, very fortunate with that actually to get that help.
 

Tracey found it hard to get help and thought it should be easier to connect with services.

Tracey found it hard to get help and thought it should be easier to connect with services.

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Talking about the services…?

Yes. I mean I, I’ll be blunt, inadequate. On an individual level, definitely not. Some very skilled people, some very, very caring and dedicated people but it might be a resource issue. I’m not sure and also, you know, [sighs] are we clear about whether there is there is a link as well. I I’ve not been clear. The evidence seems to suggest there isn’t or what I’ve read doesn’t suggest a link between the self-harming necessarily and the going on to actually commit suicide. But you can’t undervalue what’s going on with a young person, who is causing themselves, you know, serious physical harm. 

And I feel that I’m quite well-equipped to seek out help. I will ring and I’ll have the confidence to ask for help and I didn’t find it easy and I had to make quite a few phone calls and it was all very exhausting and, when you’re in the middle of a very difficult situation, as it is already, so, you know, that’s an issue. 

So the other thing I think we found was that there was a link from CAMHS to a group that were a dedicated group working with young people who self-harmed and, for some reason, my son didn’t fit the criteria and I’m not sure why he didn’t fit the criteria, whether it’s I can’t recall or whether they told and it didn’t seem to make sense. So he wasn’t able to necessarily access, you know, a group that I think could have been maybe of some benefit for him to be able to be with other people who were experiencing self-harming and, you know, with some specialist kind of support and guidance. 

So and only recently I’ve found, I think it’s through Young Minds but there are there are numbers as well that he can, he can ring. I think CAMHS did give him a leaflet and I’m not sure whether he has actually spoken to anyone. I know he has pastoral care and he’s had other, you know, but I’m not sure whether he did but something specifically connecting with that, you know, would have been quite beneficial I think or could have been quite beneficial in the early stages maybe, if I’d have understood that he could have accessed that. So yeah, that side of things I feel could have been better really.
 

Tracey thinks schools should be aware of self-harm and know what to do about it.

Tracey thinks schools should be aware of self-harm and know what to do about it.

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Is there any message that you might want to give to health, social care, emergency services, about the ways they respond and help or don’t help?

Yes, I think there’s work to be done there. I think, if we go back to school, because this is going to be fairly prevalent, it’s a fact so there’s no point in trying to think that regardless of where you are, a leafy-laned school, sink school, whatever you’d like to call it, there’s a likelihood because we know it’s a fact now that there’s going to be a number of teenagers self-harming. That is going to happen and these are going to be young people, troubled young people coming in to school with that problem. 

I don’t think schools are that that well equipped. I think we were fortunate that we had we had this unit where my son could go and talk to people and they helped him to a degree but they can sign post as well or they can come to me and say, “We need some external help for this.” So I think something needs to be done there in terms of awareness and is that the right place and is that the right place because have they got the skills to intervene and actually handle that? I’m not sure about that. So it’s about knowing then where to refer and what to do again, without the overreaction. 

I don’t think I said this but my son was actually isolated from school in the end because they couldn’t cope and they felt he was influencing other young people because there was a bit of a a bit of a glut if you like of other young people and I thought that was really unfortunate. I know my son viewed that very, very negatively, the fact that he couldn’t go to school and access what everyone else was accessing. So that’s again something that I think needs to be thought through because isolation is the wrong thing and judging and assuming is a wrong thing. To me it’s not the right way of dealing with it. It does need, I think it does need a degree of specialist support.
 

Tracey says parents need to keep emotionally strong and have some time for themselves.

Tracey says parents need to keep emotionally strong and have some time for themselves.

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And I and I think I’d add to that again, by trying to keep trying to keep yourself reasonably strong and not, very easy to say this, to actually carry it out is a different thing but do whatever you can to stay emotionally strong and well, so that you, you know, and sometimes I think it’s easy to think, “I can’t hold it all together.” And sometimes you won’t be able to hold it all together but just to be aware that you deserve, you know, as a human being, you deserve to actually have some time for yourself and to actually have some nurturing for yourself, whatever that might be, whatever it is, you know, some time out. 

If there is somebody else that you can talk to, you know, if it’s just shopping or something that gives you peace or something else to divert attention away from what’s going on. You know, but sometimes it’s kind of easier said than done but they are the sorts of things I think I think I would say and keep trying to talk about it. The young person might not want to talk about it but it’s worth trying to understand what’s going on and try not to be too shocked about what they say and what you see because that might lead them to have other feelings that might lead them not to tell you the next time because if you overreact, you become traumatised by it visibly, you can have a private trauma, but visibly then they are going to have other feelings like guilt and shame and all the rest of it that, you know, won’t help them to actually be able to perhaps talk about it another time. So yeah, I think that’s perhaps it, what I’d say for now.
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