To mark Self Injury Awareness Day (1 March), Hightown Housing Association is sharing its people-led approach at its mental health services in Stevenage and Aylesbury, to show how both service users and staff can help dispel myths and raise awareness of the signs of self-injury.

Hightown believes listening and learning from its service users is the most effective way to deliver personalised support to people in supported housing and those living in their own home.  Service users develop a person-centred plan with their support worker to meet their needs for daily living skills, and leisure activities. They are even involved in the recruitment and selection of new staff and reviewing policies and procedures to help them feel involved in decision making.

Oxleys Road, Stevenage

Hightown’s Support Worker , Marie Marshall, has spoken about how self-harm is often widely misunderstood.

“Many people think that those suffering with self-harm bring it on themselves. People don’t want to self-harm, it is an addiction. You learn so much from talking to real people who have self-harmed.”

Marie has spent 10 years working closely with people who have struggled with their mental health and self-harm at Hightown’s Oxleys Road service in Stevenage, providing a range of support including help with cooking, shopping, budgeting and housework. Putting in place support plans and speaking to service users regularly means staff are in a good position to assess how they are feeling and offer extra support when they need it.

Marie believes it is important that misconceptions and myths around self-harm continue to be corrected, and advocates the importance of not judging the illness without a proper understanding of the challenges that people face.

“It’s only when you have experienced seeing someone who has been through self-harming that you realise the pain they are in. It’s not someone just wanting to make a fuss. It really showed me that this is so real. When you’re in that dark place, it’s like nothing else matters.”

Living with self-harm – Julie’s story

Julie began self-harming after suffering bullying at school when she was just 13 years old.  She has been living at Oxleys Road for the last three years.

“At Oxleys Road, I receive medication support and help with just talking things through when I am feeling low. I do all my own cooking and housework.” Julie says. "If it wasn’t for the staff at Oxleys Road, I wouldn’t be here. They have literally saved my life.”

Having struggled with self-harm for over 20 years, Julie is also keen to highlight the misconceptions that people have about self-harm.

“I’ve never been an alcoholic, but I imagine it’s a similar feeling. It’s an addiction. It’s how you deal with stress. When someone upsets me, I have a strong feeling that I want to self-harm. It’s a physical feeling, not just emotional. It’s how my body responds to emotion. A lot of people assume that people who self-harm are attention seekers and it’s not true. When I self-harmed, it was on my legs and I deliberately don’t wear shorts because of that. If you’re not telling anyone and you’re covering your scars, how can it be attention seeking? It’s your way of coping. People assume you’re crazy and there is an attitude of ‘it’s your own fault’."

“I would really encourage people to ask for help if they are struggling. If you don’t ask, then things will get worse. I don’t like asking for help but I know that I have to try and be honest with how I’m feeling.”

Julie currently undertakes regular therapy sessions, and enjoys spending time with her family members, particularly her niece and nephew. With plans to move into a flat of her own in Stevenage, Julie is optimistic about her future.  She adds:

“I’ve recently got a car so that gives me my independence and freedom and means I can go out when I need to. I would like to move on to independent living and have my own flat in Stevenage. I’m keeping an eye out for flats!”

Blue Cedar Lodge, Aylesbury

Joanne Oresanya, Support Worker at Blue Cedar Lodge, spoke about some of her experiences with residents who are struggling with self-harm. 

“Before he came to Blue Cedar Lodge, one of our service users would self-harm before he went to bed. He stopped doing this after arriving here but he had a buzzer by his bed that he could use to alert staff. Because we speak to service users regularly and get to know them, we are in a good position to assess how they are feeling and offer support when they need it. We would also put the number for Samaritans in his room in case he needed extra support.”

Joanne has spent three years providing personalised support for people with mental health problems, some of whom have self-harmed, at Blue Cedar Lodge service in Aylesbury. She believes that there are often several underlying causes that contribute to self-harm.

“There can be a variety of reason why people self-harm.  Sometimes it can be linked to issues from their past, perhaps childhood memories coming back. If you are worried about a family member or friend self-harming, the best thing you can do is listen and try to understand.”

Recovering from self-harm – Gary’s story

Six years ago, Gary was hospitalised for self-harming.

“I burned myself with a lighter and cut my arms, and had to go to A&E. Afterwards, staff at Blue Cedar Lodge would sit and talk to me when I was feeling the urge and that would help. It’s meant I haven’t self-harmed again.”

Gary moved into Blue Cedar Lodge six years ago and is full of praise of the support staff who help to create a relaxing atmosphere.  Gary also has some advice for others who are struggling with the illness.

“Try and take deep breaths and try and focus on something positive. Personally, I find music very helpful. I have a relaxation music tape that I listen to when I am struggling.”

Having gone six years without any incidents of self-harm, Gary is optimistic about the future, and is keen to find a role that will allow him to help others who are also struggling with self-harm.              

“I’m hoping to become a volunteer for Buckinghamshire MIND. I’d like to help run groups and help people who are in a similar position to what I went through.”