- One Direction fans left distraught after Zayn Malik quit the band this week
- Quickly became top trending subject on Twitter as fans reacted to news
- But disturbing #cut4Zayn tag soon appeared as fans claimed to self-harm
The girl’s arm is draped, palm upwards, across a pile of pencil sketches.
Each has been drawn in painstaking detail, showing the adored subject in a variety of poses: smiling, glancing sideways, mid-song. Some are decorated with hearts, others have graffiti-style lettering, spelling out his name: ‘Zayn.’
But this teenage tribute to Zayn Malik, the 22-year-old One Direction singer who this week announced he was quitting the pop band, is far from innocuous.
For the arm draped across the drawings is dripping with blood. Deep, raw wounds have been slashed — in furious, deliberate crosses — through the flesh of the forearm, spattering dark droplets across the paper shrine.
Scroll down for video
Fans of One Direction have been left distraught after Zayn Malik dramatically quit the band on Wednesday
This image appeared yesterday on the social network Twitter, alongside the slogan ‘cut4Zayn’. As teenagers in their millions mourned the departure of one of the members of the world’s best-known boy band, some expressed their emotions in the most sinister way.
Minutes after the news broke, grief-stricken fans around the globe began sharing images of self-harm, cutting themselves on camera in a frantic bid to get their idol’s attention — and encouraging others to do the same. ‘If my tears aren’t enough for you, maybe my blood will be,’ the teenage artist of the pencil sketches has typed beneath her photograph.
‘The faster you cut your wrists, the faster Zayn comes back,’ another girl has written, alongside a picture of a bloodied knife and her red-smeared wrist. One distraught fan appears to have etched the words ‘I love Zayn’ into her forearm with a broken razor blade.
Yesterday, the internet teemed with similar images and comments posted by devastated young fans. Many observers have compared the deluge to the outpouring of grief after the break-up of The Beatles in 1970 or Take That in the Nineties — and some took to chatrooms and social media networks to poke fun at those who were sharing their heartbreak.
But experts have warned against mockery. Though it would be easy to dismiss this type of behaviour as trivial and attention-seeking, it should, they say, be taken seriously by parents, teachers and peers.
For self-harm is one of the fastest growing disorders among young people in this country.
Zayn said he wanted to be a ‘normal 22-year-old’ and leave fame behind him following his 1D departure
Up to one in five 15-year-olds has hurt themselves deliberately, according to the most recent data collected by the respected Health Behaviour In School-Aged Children study. This figure has tripled since 2005.
Hospital admissions for self-harm among young people in England are at a five-year high.
Julie Lynn Evans, a leading child psychotherapist in London, who has spent 25 years working in hospitals, schools and with families, says self-harm has become the cri de coeur of this generation of teenagers.
‘It’s an epidemic,’ she says. ‘It is everywhere. Social services have never seen anything like it — private psychiatrists in Harley Street can’t cope with the number of patients.
‘It’s running through private and state schools. It’s getting to the point where it’s almost unusual for me to see a girl aged 13 who hasn’t self-harmed in some way.’
Self-harm can take a number of forms, ranging from picking scabs to intentional bruising, cutting and burning the skin. Though self-harmers are mostly female and in the age range 15 to 24, teenage boys are at risk, too.
‘In my experience, they tend to cut themselves in different places to girls and burn themselves with cigarettes and lighters,’ says Lynn Evans, who sees male and female patients of all ages. The youngest she has treated for self-harm was aged just eight.
The physical act of cutting their skin gives these youngsters an instant release from the emotions pent up inside them. The pain is countered by a flow of hormones in the brain, which trigger a transient but powerful high, which offers some respite from their low emotional state.
So, what’s behind this insidious trend? And why now?
Over the years, experts have warned of the prevalence of anorexia, bulimia and depression and, while these continue to ravage our young generation, the recent rise in self-harm is disturbing and unprecedented.
Its triggers are wide-ranging and vary from case to case, says consultant clinical psychologist Debra Potel, who specialises in child and adolescent mental health. ‘Young men and women may be deeply affected by family problems, such as financial issues, violence or substance abuse.
‘Some are managing complicated home lives with stresses at school or work. They may feel under pressure to succeed, worried about fitting in, unsure of their identity or unhappy with their body image.
‘In this sort of situation, self-harm can seem like an instant release.’
For Olivia Nathan, 16, from Plaistow, West Sussex, her trigger was the death of a close family member at a time when she was already experiencing ‘intense and disturbing’ thoughts.
‘When my aunt died, I buried my feelings,’ she says. ‘I’d been struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts for quite a while. I started out trying to burn myself with my hair straighteners and it wasn’t long before I was using razor blades.
‘Self-harming made me feel like all my anxieties had gone away, but then afterwards, I’d be angry with myself. It was a horrible time.’
While One Direction plan to continue as a four-piece, things will never be the same again for Zayn’s fans
Olivia’s mother, Jane, 55, a scientist, realised her daughter was self-harming after discovering disturbing messages about suicide and depression she had posted on a social media account called ‘Death_is_a_friend’.
‘I was shocked,’ says Jane. ‘She was cutting her arms and legs with razor blades and the blades from a pencil sharpener. It was a nightmare. I knew she was unhappy, but I had thought it was teenage moodiness.’
This is one of the reasons self-harm can be so difficult for parents to recognise. Many of the warning signs coincide with normal teenage behaviour: withdrawal, sullenness, evenings spent in their bedroom in front of a computer screen.
There is no particular personality type predisposed to self-harming, and it can affect young people from all backgrounds and cultures.
Julie Lynn Evans blames technology and the fast pace of modern life for the surge in cases. ‘The internet has given us instant everything at our fingertips,’ she says. ‘In such a fast-paced world, young people are used to getting a fast response.
‘So, when they see or hear something they don’t like, they reach for an instant fix. They’re not brought up to be calm or reflective when they are unhappy or uncomfortable. They are brought up to do something about it.’
In this respect, she adds, ‘self-harm is not attention-seeking, it’s a reflex — just like an adult might smoke a cigarette or have a drink.
‘Cutting gives an instant sense of relief. It releases endorphins, and so does make them feel a little better before the pain kicks in. It is the only way they know how to feel.’
Self-harm is so ingrained in teenage culture, and its imagery so easily accessible online, that young people don’t need to go far to learn about it.
At the click of a mouse, on social networks, forums and picture-sharing websites, they can access an entire digital world of harmful, unmonitored information, ranging from imagery of self-harm and suicide to how-to guides for cutting, advice on hiding scars and reducing bloodspill and anecdotes from other self-harmers.
‘Secondary school-age children, particularly girls, most likely know someone else who is doing it and will be bombarded by images of it online, on TV and among their peers,’ says Dr Elizabeth Kenyon, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist who has worked at The Priory rehabilitation centre in Roehampton.
One Direction fans took to Twitter to share their devastation after Zayn Malik quit One Direction on Wednesday and even got a disturbing self-harm hashtag trending
‘It’s a vulnerable time of life, during which the brain is still developing, and many young people learn by copying.
‘Cutting is not of itself a disorder, it’s a symptom of underlying distress and low self-esteem — and the idea of mimicking others fits into this mental state.’ The impact of viewing such material should not be underestimated.
Last month, a study by four youth charities found that two-thirds of 11 to 14-year-olds have shared photographs of themselves or others self-harming online.
When asked how they responded to such images, more than half of this age group said they ‘felt like hurting themselves afterwards’.
But many of them are too young to understand the implications. Dr Claire Casey, a leading child and adolescent psychiatrist in London’s Harley Street, says many of those who self-harm nowadays see it as a ‘badge of honour’.
‘In the Eighties and Nineties, when it wasn’t as prevalent, it was related to suicidal intent,’ she says. ‘But today, it’s not. Self-harming is a way of manifesting agitation and angst, of letting off steam.
‘It’s seen as a way of expressing emotion, displaying to your friends that you’re feeling some really serious emotions.’
This sort of behaviour, she adds, can become alarmingly addictive.
‘I’ve seen young people with not an inch of flesh on their arms and legs that hasn’t been cut. The cultural taboo around hurting yourself has completely fallen away. As a result, young people can get into a dangerous cycle.’
Though difficult to spot, there are warning signs that your child may be in the grip of such an addiction.
A change in behaviour or mood, deterioration in communication, social isolation and problems at school can all be indications they may be harming themselves. Parents can also be alert to the physical evidence. ‘Look at their jumpers,’ says Lynn Evans.
‘If they are putting their thumbs through their cuffs, or wearing a lot of jewellery on their wrists, they may be trying to cover up something.
‘They may stop wearing short sleeves or refuse to strip off on the beach. Any furtive behaviour can be a clue something has changed.’
As Zayn quits One Direction we look at his highs and lows
Because of the destructive role technology can play in encouraging harmful behaviour, some experts advise an internet or mobile phone ban, or censoring the websites your child can access, to limit their exposure to poisonous material.
‘Social media is opening up huge stresses for young people — and things that were previously left at the school gate are following them into their bedrooms at night,’ says Debra Potel. ‘Something parents can do is introduce a rule about electronic devices, perhaps that they’re not used after 10pm.
‘That way, if something really nasty is shared online, the teenager isn’t alone in their room with no one to speak to.’
Prevention is incredibly difficult, and parents shouldn’t blame themselves if a child does start self-harming. As Jane Nathan found out, even the most well-adjusted of children can fall into its grip.
‘Those were our darkest days,’ she says of her family’s experience. ‘How could Olivia hurt herself?
‘I couldn’t understand it and I didn’t know what else to do — I was already doing everything possible.’
A frank, honest family relationship, good communication and help from professionals can all help to counter the emotions that lead to self-harm. Olivia is now on the road to recovery, having received counselling, psychiatric help and a course of anti-depressants.
Today, she says: ‘I’m the happiest I’ve been in years.’
Her mother, who was inspired by her experience to set up Healthcare On Demand clinics offering physical and psychological therapies, says: ‘Looking back on how ill she was just a year ago, it’s hard to believe how well she is now. The scars, physical and emotional, are finally beginning to fade.’
For those young people posting images of self-harm online this week, the scars are still fresh.
And it is not for us to mock their distress, but to recognise it for what it really is: a symptom of a wider epidemic that is threatening our teenagers’ happiness and putting their lives at risk.
‘What state have we got to as a society when news about a boy band member leaving can lead a young person to seriously hurt themselves?’ asks Julie Lynn Evans.
‘It’s incredibly sad. More than that, it’s terrifying. And we all have a duty to do something about it — before it’s too late.’
n ADDITIONAL reporting: Fran Benson. for help, contact www.youngminds.org.uk and www.healthcareondemand.org.uk