Think of self-harm and what image springs to mind?
Is it a teenager, alone in their room, with scars on their wrists and a razor blade up their sleeve? While that may be the first thought most people jump to, it is far from whole story.
Self-harm often stems from the sufferer feeling it is their only option to find any relief from an emotion – sadness, stress, panic or even anger.
It can also just be a need to feel something. But what is clear is it can be frightening, isolating and can bring about feelings of disgust or shame.
Not only are the reasons behind why people self-harm varied, but so is the damage they inflict upon themselves. It can be physical pain, such as cutting, burning or scratching, but it also includes binge-eating, starvation, drinking to excess and drug abuse.
And it most certainly can affect anyone, of any age or gender and from any walk of life.
Someone struggling with self-harm may think ‘why am I like this?’ After all, it goes against every survival instinct humans have.
They may feel that they have no-one to talk to, that friends and family will never understand how it can possibly make them feel better, how they cannot help themselves, how it is an all-consuming compulsion.
There will be people out there with loved ones who will not understand – but they are not alone. There are people out there who can and will help.
Echo art group, at Swann Bank Church, Burslem, has been set up to help people who have suffered from self-harm express their emotions and socialise in a positive and constructive way.
Taking those first steps into any new group, not knowing what to expect, can be a daunting experience.
But on coming to Echo, those fears are quickly allayed by the genuine smiles and good-natured humour anyone who walks through their door receives.
After just minutes in the room, it is clear this is a safe space – a space where people could be themselves, without fear of judgement for their past or present situation.
Echo provides mutual support to people over the age of 18 who have experienced self-harm.
It could be asked, were these people sad, damaged? Would it be awkward, and silent? Would a mere spectator to injury, rather than the injured party, be unwelcome?
But was is clear is what matters to this group is the future and what a relief it has been for some of those people to come to Echo.
Susan Hancock, aged 62, from Kidsgrove, twisted her hands anxiously as she talked.
She quietly spoke of how she was abused as a child and as a terrified little girl, who was also beaten by her father, she had never dared to tell anyone what she had been through.
This had led Susan to binge-eat and attempt to overdose over 15 times, before at 28, she tried a final time.
She said: “The reason I took the overdose was because I had nobody to tell anything about – nobody listened to you then, when I was young.
“About my mental health, they just kept saying ‘Oh give her more medication, more medication…’
“I just got angry – I kept thinking, ‘Nobody cares, I might as well go.'”
Susan spent some time in prison, followed by 12 months in a psychiatric hospital.
At age 49, she found Echo, she found art, she found friends and, crucially, she found hope.
Susan said: “Echo made me realise I had no-one to speak to, no-one to speak to about my mental health, and no-one to speak to about taking overdoses.
“I still have bad days – I have days where I forget things, but I’ve always got Echo’s support.”
And not every self-harmer’s story is as bleak as Susan’s.
Michelle is a quiet, unassuming woman, who had been brought up in a safe, secure, stable family environment.
But it was one where emotions were actively discouraged, so in her teenage years, Michelle had no idea how to appropriately respond to sadness and anger, and turned to cutting, as a release.
She had not been abused, beaten, punished, or degraded. She had simply felt trapped, and uncertain.
Self-harm can affect anyone.
Watching the group paint, laugh, and chat, there is an overwhelming sense of relief that Echo exists, that help is available to those who need it and that this group of adults, had found it cathartic to speak. They knew that sharing their experiences can and will help others.
Like self-harm, help can come in many forms.
It can be an anonymous help-line, picking up a few pamphlets at your local health clinic, joining a group like Echo, or contacting mental health charity Mind, which provides support for adults and children.
It can be joining a group, or talking about your feelings.
A person can be left asking, is self-harm a thing that people do, or a thing that happens to them? We can control a feeling to some extent, but in the end, it needs to be felt, and expressed.
Self-harm can come along, and find you, but it is not who you are.
Click on the video below to see StaffsLive’s special video report by Dasha Smith:
To get in contact with Echo, visit: www.brighter-futures.org.uk/mental_health/scheme/echo
If you are under 18, visit: www.mind.org.uk/information-support/guides-to-support-and-services/children-and-young-people/