When mental agony becomes self-inflicted physical pain

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HELENA was abused by a teacher when she was 11, and still feels the impact 20 years later. The man in question began by bullying her, then dreamed up excuses to keep her in detention twice a week, during which time he sexually abused her. This went on for over a year and Helena concealed the situation. “I was led to believe by the teacher that there was no point me telling anyone what he was doing because I was an 11-year-old girl and he was a teacher and no-one would ever believe me,” she says.

Helena persuaded her parents to move her to another school, but by this time, she recalls, her behaviour had become “odd” and she had become isolated.

She quickly became the victim of bullying – tormented over her behaviour, her tall, thin appearance and how little she ate. Still she did not confide in anyone about the abuse, and the tormented young girl ate less and less, spending every lunchtime crying in a toilet cubicle.

Her father’s business collapsed and Helena had to leave this private school. At her next school she decided not to try to make friends, but changed her mind after a while. The unaccustomed feeling of ease and safety brought everything crashing down for her psychologically. Self-harming had started while she was being abused and had continued, spiralling further out of control.

“I wasn’t eating and I was burning myself, taking pills, banging my head against the bed head and doing various other things,” says Helena. “I had become addicted to pain.”

Friends voiced concern to school staff, and Helena was brutally made to strip to reveal the scars on her skeletal frame.

Some time later she went to the GP and said she wanted to stop hurting herself and was referred her to a psychiatric hospital, and after three months of listening to other patients’ harrowing stories, the 16-year-old finally decided to speak out.

Police were called in, the teacher in question was sacked and banned from teaching in three counties. The head teacher simply took early retirement, despite the revelation that two large files of complaints had been made against the abusive teacher.

Helena’s life swung between living at home, running away, mixing with a bad crowd and eating so little she came close to death. Suddenly, at 18, when all her friends were going off to university, a light flicked on in her head.

“I realised that actually, if I wanted to stop cutting myself I could, and if I wanted to eat I could. From that point on it was just a very, very slow recovery.” At 23, Helena went back to full-time education and after gaining two degrees, she now works for a charity. Reflecting on her dreadful experiences, she says: “I consider myself a completely normal, healthy, functioning human being now, but the impact it (the abuse) had on my life has been enormous. It took years and years of therapy and it was two steps forward, one step back the whole way. Sometimes I feel huge regret for all those years lost in the pain caused by abuse, and not being able to speak out and seek help much earlier on.”

At one point Helena had mustered the courage to call ChildLine, but could not get through and decided to forget it. “I often think about how different things might have been for me if I had managed to speak to someone, and that someone had told he they believed me.

“My advice to other young people is to tell someone. If they don’t believe you, tell someone else and someone else until you get the help you need.”

So concerned are four charities about the growing number of reports of self-harming that they have joined together to appeal to youngsters not to suffer in silence. Research done on behalf of ChildLine, selfharm.co.uk, YouthNet and YoungMinds among 1,400 young people showed that 86 per cent had self-harmed and more than half said they’d done it every day or a few times a week. More than 40 per cent had told no-one about it. ChildLine in Yorkshire and the Humber received 451 contacts from children about self-harm in 2010/11, a 69 per cent increase on the previous year.

“Young people do it because it brings them some sort of release and relief from the pain and stress of their life and the problems they’re experiencing, often involving a difficult family situation,” says Kemi Olubodun, service manager for Leeds and Manchester.

“I think lots of young people are ashamed to talk about it but I would urge them to tell someone. It is difficult, but the earlier they seek help the better.”