Recent figures reported by the BBC demonstrate that the “number of children being admitted to hospital in England for self-harm is at a five-year high”. In a study done by the Health and Social Care Information Centre it was shown that in the 10-14 year old age group, admissions of girls had gone up from 3,090 to 5,953 between 2009/10 and 2013/14, whilst admissions of boys during the same period were shown to rise from 454 to 659. This is an increase of almost 93% and 45% for girls and boys respectively.
Whilst the figures themselves represent a damning indictment of the despair and alienation felt by many young people today, they are no more than the tip of the iceberg in a wider social crisis taking place across the whole of society in an epoch of capitalist decay.
We must look at these figures in the wider context of the crisis of capitalism, the effects of the crash in 2008, and the ensuing chaos and instability that it unleashed on the lives of working class people. This is the point of departure; but we cannot simply leave things there - we must take a deeper look at the causes of such phenomena in order to better understand how to genuinely help those people in need of support.
The Causes of Self-Harm
There are many reasons as to why individuals feel the need to self-harm; but one of the most common factors, which the majority of research into the topic has brought up, is that people do it for the sense of control over their own lives and bodies that it helps them feel.
During a period of emotional distress, when mental health issues are being affected by insecurity about educations, jobs, relationships, family and health, a sense of helplessness can become compounded. With this feeling of being unable to affect any progressive change in their own lives and in the world around them, sometimes the only thing which some people feel they can control is their own physical being. To escape this feeling of impotence, the urge to affect change in the one thing they have power over, their own bodies, can become an outlet for all of these pent up frustrations. By cutting, bashing, ingesting toxic substances or otherwise harming themselves, they can feel physically different and in so doing escape, albeit temporarily, from the emotional strain which is having such a profound impact on their day-to-day lives.
In this sense, self-harm must be understood as a coping mechanism - a means by which to get through the immediate cause of stress and emotional pain by gaining something tangible to focus on. It is not simply a cry for help or an indicator that someone wants to actually kill themselves, and the confusion around this is one of the largest factors making it difficult for someone to seek support.
In this state of injury the body produces more endorphins and other chemicals, which are released as a natural pain killer and are means by which the body attempts to protect itsself. This reaction can be seen in other circumstances too, for example if a sports person may become injured or if an individual goes to the gym for a heavy workout. After pushing the body to its limits a period of tiredness and weakness can be felt followed by a short rest, which quickly leads to a sense of peace and almost euphoria as the body begins to repair itself and release such chemicals into the body as would help this process.
With self-harm there is also the psychological factor of seeing and experiencing the healing process. As the body heals and gets better so it can feel as though whatever problems a person may be facing can also be overcome and improve as well.
Isolation and Hopelessness
What causes such isolation though? Why do people, and young people in particular, feel so helpless and cut off from the world around themselves that the only way they feel they can change anything is through engaging in such a destructive act as self-harm?
In a society with little to no hope for the future of young people, where jobs are scarce, wages and conditions are abominable, and it feels ever more obvious that every aspect of mainstream society is dominated by the whims of a tiny minority at the top, is it any wonder that people feel so isolated? More and more people find themselves turning to such behaviours as a means to relieve stress and cope with depression and anxiety.
In a report by the World Health Organisation (WHO), to be released in 2015, it is expected to show that, in England, the number of teenagers who have self-harmed has actually tripled over the last decade. There is nothing to suggest that similar trends don’t exist across the rest of the UK, Europe and all other advanced capitalist countries. In the research sampled for the Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children report, 22% of 15-year-olds admitted to having hurt themselves on purpose, and, of these, as many as 43% said that they did so at least once a month.
It is needless to say that self-harm as a coping method is not the healthiest of options for people experiencing distress and there are far better ways in which people can deal with what they are experiencing.
Talking therapies and harm minimisation techniques have been shown to decrease people’s reliance on self-harm, so much so that in recent years the focus on treating people with such complex behaviours has changed from out-and-out attempts at stopping self-harm to minimising the damage caused by the act and trying to support people through care. This can be done by such methods as wearing a tight rubber band around the wrist and snapping it against the flesh during periods of stress, to holding ice cubes filled with red food colouring in the hand so that as it melts you get the sensation of pain (holding the frozen cube against your skin), whilst at the same time a mark is left over as a visible reminder of the act.
Whilst such methods do cause pain, thus providing similar effects to the more extreme methods of self-harm, they do not do the damage which may be caused otherwise by cutting, punching walls or ingesting toxic substances. At the same time, if someone does feel the need to cut, it has been suggested by clinicians to use other methods to reduce the risk of infection by cutting and other potential dangers.
The building of a support network around an individual who self-harms, and developing a care plan to help support them through difficult periods, is also key to maintaining a person’s mental health. As much as a lack of such a social network and instability can lead to the increased risk of someone succumbing to depression or harming themselves, the creation of a safety net can greatly reduce the isolation felt by many and lower the potential for them to slip through the cracks in society and take part in such dangerous activities.
Capitalism and Alienation
It is in just this sphere, in the creation of a support network, that a system based on exploitation is inherently at fault, constantly failing in meeting the needs of some of the most vulnerable members of our society.
Capitalism in crisis, with increased unemployment, job insecurity, lower wages, terms and conditions, the destruction of the welfare state and care services, along with the dislocation caused by the privatisation of the NHS, will only further exacerbate the problem leading more and more people into dire straits.
If you look at the effects of de-industrialisation in the 1980s, from the destruction of mining communities to the selling off of large sections of industrial production, many communities which relied upon these jobs and the security they provided have literally been shattered to pieces. People no longer have the support networks of their friends and families which used to be provided when the working class was in a stronger position economically. People have become more and more isolated from the society around them and have begun to fall through the cracks in greater numbers.
From the 1990s, with increased investment in the public sector and the massive expansion of credit, it was possible for a time to halt some of the worse effects of this process in some areas. Although, it must be admitted, we still see a rise in alcoholism, drug abuse and other social ills in this period.
Since the beginning of the crisis in 2008 this process has been further accelerated. With the wholesale destruction of the welfare state and a continued downward pressure on wages, people are finding it harder and harder to simply survive, and the social consequences are becoming self-evident. This is only set to get worse in the next period.
Limitations of Statistics
The statistics on self-harm are startling and distressing in and of themselves; but it is worth noting that even what is known does not fully express the extent of the problem. Most healthcare professionals explain that the only instances of self-harm which do require hospital treatment are those extreme cases wherein a person in such a period of profound distress, unable to control their emotions, hurts themselves to such an extent that treatment is needed. The majority of self-harm, being a private act, is at such a low level of damage to the body that medical treatment itself becomes unnecessary.
Also, as people get older, whilst self-harming can continue, it is likely to express itself in different ways and, with the development of other coping strategies, lessen the likelihood of medical admission.
There is also the problem of defining an injury as being caused by self-harm. As the earlier BBC report explains: “Boys were also more likely than girls to punch or hit themselves, which some hospitals may not categorise as self-harm, campaigners added.”
If you add to this alcohol and drug abuse, taking part in risky activities which could cause injury, and pro-actively not looking after one’s health leading to future problems, there are a whole gamut of behaviours which cause harm to the self. Whether or not these are included in the figures is often dependent on the way in which the specific institutions reporting such things would consider them as being self-harm or if they would categorise them differently.
For this reason, all statistics related to self-harm must be seen as only indicative of how much this affects sections of the population.
Myths: Suicide and Self-Harm
As stated above, self-harm is a coping a method, an attempt to survive during a period of despair. This attempt to cope has its limits and there are those, without the proper support and without any safety nets around them, who do find an ultimate expression of the alienation they feel by taking the route of ending their own lives.
Whilst there is not necessarily a direct correlation between those who self-harm and those who will go on to commit suicide, the same conditions and feelings which give rise to the one can produce the other as well. If we look at the figures related to suicide rates in the advanced capitalist countries since the crisis began in 2008, they show an unsettling similarity to that of the increase in the instances of self-harm discussed above.
A report by a group of experts published in the British Medical Journal in 2013 directly links this increase in the suicide rate in many advanced capitalist countries with the instability caused by the crisis in 2008 and its ongoing effects.
Commenting on this research, the BBC stated:
“After the 2008 economic crisis, rates of suicide increased in the European and American countries studied, particularly in men and in countries with higher levels of job loss.”
“Their analysis in the British Medical Journal looked at data from 54 countries to assess the global impact of the financial problems triggered by the collapse of US credit and housing markets in 2008.
“In the year after the crisis began, the male suicide rate rose by 3.3% overall.”
This amounts to a staggering increase in these countries alone of 4884 deaths by suicide in 2009 based on previous trends.
The report goes on to point out later that in 2009 “there was a 37% rise in unemployment and 3% falls in GDP per capita, reflecting the onset of the economic crisis in 2008.”
Commenting on these figures, a spokesperson from the Samaritans said:
“It is no surprise to us to be told that suicides rise during recessions.”
“A snapshot survey of calls to our branches in 2008, just before the current recession began, showed that 1 in 10 callers talked about financial difficulties. That had risen to 1 in 6 at the end of last year (2009).”
This is not the only report to draw such conclusions. Further research printed in the British Journal of Psychiatry has been conducted since, which the BBC reported on:
“The study by the University of Oxford and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine analysed data from 24 EU countries, the US and Canada.
“It said suicides had been declining in Europe until 2007. By 2009 there was a 6.5% increase, a level that was sustained until 2011.
“It was the equivalent of 7,950 more suicides that would have been expected if previous trends continued, the research group said.
“Deaths by suicide were also falling in Canada, but there was a marked increase when the recession took hold in 2008, leading to 250 more suicides.
“The number of people taking their own life was already increasing in the US, but the rate ‘accelerated’ with the economic crisis, leading to 4,750 additional deaths.
“The report said losing a job, having a home repossessed and being in debt were the main risk factors.”
(The full report can be read here.)
The above statistics primarily focus on the advanced capitalist countries - America, Canada and the EU. But if you look further afield the picture is no different. The WHO have stated, after studying 10 years’ worth of research and data, that, on average, somewhere around the world, one person takes their own life every 40 seconds concluding:
Around 800,000 people kill themselves every year
It is the second leading cause of death in young people, aged 15 to 29
Those over 70 are the most likely to take their own lives
Three-quarters of these deaths were in low and middle income countries
In richer countries, three times as many men as women die by suicide
What we can see from these figures is no more or less than a stark portrait of modern day capitalism, a system which is squandering the potential of so many people. 800,000 people are lost each and every year to despair. That’s 800,000 men, women and children with hearts, minds, skills and creativity which if harnessed could help to create a truly beautiful world worth living in and a society worth living for. 800,000 people ground down each and every year by the wheels of a careless machine interested solely in the pursuit of profit.
Hope and Despair in the Modern Epoch
Capitalism on a world scale is in crisis. It has reached a stage whereby it has created wonders in the modern world; at the same time the vast majority of the population who work to produce such wonders are divorced from the results of their own labour. They are disenfranchised from the political process and isolated in their communities, which are ravaged by the scourges of de-industrialisation, unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse and other social ills.
Whilst it would be easy to look upon the above statistics and to despair and get upset, such a response would help no one, least of all those affected by the worst conditions inflicted on the mass of the working class. The figures related to self-harm and suicide should be seen rather as a cause of anger against a system incapable of providing the support needed by people in incredibly vulnerable circumstances.
Such figures should also be seen as only one side of a coin. Whilst many are stuck in a state of hopelessness and despair, there is also a wider development of consciousness in society, with layers of youth and the working class who are being politically radicalisation and are looking for a revolutionary way out. Self-harm statistics, therefore, by no means express everything about the ferment which we see taking place in the current period.
The same processes which lead to individuals succumbing to their alienation and despair are also the same which are propelling wider and wider layers of the working class to draw revolutionary conclusions and to seek a solution to the crisis of capitalism on a collective basis. From the mass movements in Hong Kong, Ferguson and Burkina Faso recently, to the general strikes in Greece, Spain and Italy, we are seeing a re-emergence of radical movements on a world scale, as the masses look for a way out to the present that engulfs the whole of humanity.
The Only Way Out: Revolution!
Through the collective strength of the working class, the oppressed and exploited can rise up and take over the commanding heights of the economy - the banks and big industries - and start to democratically plan production based upon the needs of society. In such a way, we could start the process of rebuilding our communities. Cutting the working week down to 25 hours, with no loss of pay, and drawing the unemployed into the workforce would provide stability in people’s lives and give people the time needed to truly engage within the democratic process in society. For the first time, the mass of people would no longer be alienated from the world around them, but would be active agents in its development and change.
Freeing up the wealth being created by the working class from the pursuit of profit would also allow us to greatly invest in housing, education, health and social care, and in so doing lay the basis for a truly inclusive society, with a system of support to help the most vulnerable people during difficult times in their lives. This could put an end to the downward spiral of depression, stress, anxiety, self-harm and suicide that we see under capitalism.
In the final analysis, the only way out for individuals, and for humanity as a whole, is to destroy this system of exploitation once and fight for a socialist future.