Talking Self-harm with Parents

 Kate and Marijke, our CAMHS Speakers 


Thank you for supporting this event – our third session for parents on adolescent mental health and the second we’ve had on self-harm. I’m going to hand over to the experts from CAMHS in just a few minutes but I wanted to begin by providing some context for their presentation.


Firstly, I want to reassure you that we’re not running this event because we have a massive problem with self-harm at Thomas Cowley. Rather, it’s an issue in all secondary schools – the Young Minds mental health charity estimates that I in 12 young people use self-harm as a way of coping. So TCHS isn’t unique in facing this problem. Perhaps we are unusual, though, in that we are actually trying to deal with it. We’re not just picking up the ‘phone and making endless referrals to CAMHS when we’re worried about a young person.


So what do we do before we make that call? Well, we have tried to create a climate where it’s ok for young people to open up about their difficulties. We have an annual mental health awareness-raising week and we also teach students how to promote their emotional health as part of our PSHE programme. What we find through this work is that young people are much more open minded and less judgemental about mental health issues than many adults are – so we try to harness that openness and foster a climate in which people feel able and willing to ask for help.


When they do ask for help, there are of course judgements we have to make. If it’s clear that problems are acute, we contact parents and advise they go to GP for a referral to CAMHS. If the GP doesn’t make that referral, and some are more proactive than others on mental health, then we make the referral ourselves. 


There are numerous occasions, though, when young people approach us just because they are feeling very sad or stressed and they need to talk to an adult who will properly listen. This is where keyworker support comes in – we have a team of fifteen people who are trained in counselling and who provide this all-important listening ear. Most of them are here tonight. Some keyworkers see their young people daily, others might meet less frequently. It’s a very flexible provision and the student tends to dictate the pace. 


Keyworkers also deliver more targeted support programmes for individuals with particular needs – so we use ‘Starving the Anxiety Gremlin’, a range of anger management resources and also the self-harm programme that’s available for you to take away tonight. Our students really value this service and we know that by offering early help of this kind we are able to prevent normal teenage difficulties from escalating into full blown mental illnesses.


An area of work we’re just starting to develop is peer support. A year 11 student caught me in the yard recently and reminded me of the time during most of Years 9 and 10 when her self-harm was really out of control. She was seeing her keyworker daily as well as accessing CAMHS support back then. She said that she felt that she would never be able to stop. But she did. In fact she told me she’s been ‘clean’ for five months and that she now wants to help others.  She wants to convince students who feel now like she did then that full recovery is possible. So we’ve set up some sessions after Easter and I’m confident they will help all concerned.


In a nutshell, what we’re trying to do at TCHS is develop community support and clearly as parents and carers you are a crucial part of that community. We can I think feel very isolated as the parents of struggling teenagers so it’s good to get together. We need guidance too; we’re doing this parenting thing for the first time and it’s tough. I know through bitter personal experience that we get it wrong sometimes. 


My daughter is still in recovery from anorexia. In its early stage, some three years ago, I was no more useful than a startled rabbit caught in the headlights. All I wanted was for the cavalry to come charging over the hill in the form of CAMHS to fix everything. The cavalry did eventually arrive, six months after we first went to the GP, but it didn’t fix everything. And that’s not a criticism of CAMHS at all. It just wasn’t that simple and mental illness isn’t simple. For a start, the sufferer must want to get better – and my daughter didn’t – not until much more recently. And I also learned that it is actually families that fix kids. We need guidance from mental health professionals, of course, but in the end we do the real work. That’s why I’m so delighted you’ve turned out tonight. Your role is crucial – and I’ll hand you over to Kate and Marijke now for the guidance you’ve come to hear.






Published by Mary Meredith

Working in schools for over 20 years, I've been a Head of English, a SENCO and a deputy headteacher. I'm currently Head of Inclusion at Lincolnshire County Council. I am a sucker for the underdog. Always have been, always will be.

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