Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.
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Tuesday 26 March 2013

Shepherds watch their flocks by night.

A WHILE ago I saw a TV programme in which a farmer described sheep as creatures that try to kill themselves every day.

He wasn't wrong, either - from throwing themselves off cliffs, to choking on barbed wire and according to current news reports sinking stupidly into snowdrifts, sheep really do seem suicidally thick.

But perhaps the sheep are sad. Perhaps they have a good reason to end it all. Perhaps they're two billion in the hole to Vladimir Putin and it's a nyet from Moscow. Maybe they just can't bear to walk around with their own faeces stuck to them any more.

Facetious faeces aside, poor mental health is not our first assumption when it comes to wondering why people do things. We blame the parents, the media, social class or basic sheepy-ness long before anyone says: 'Hang on. Has anyone asked them why?'

There are two stories doing the rounds today which make you gasp to read them - because on first glance the people concerned seem so stupid, doing incredibly harmful things. There's not space in a newspaper story to do much more than present the facts in a roughly chronological order, so the extra job of thinking about why anyone did these things is left up to The Reader.

On the one hand we have a school where teachers supervised a vulnerable student while she cut herself with razor blades.

They provided sterilised blades, took her to a bathroom, and kept an eye on her before dressing her wounds afterwards.

At first thought you blame the teachers - how could they condone it? Then you read it was a special school for children with Asperger's and autism, and you realise it might be more complicated. Then perhaps you get as far as the bit where the teachers had agreed it with the girl's parents first as the best way of dealing with the problem, and you probably scratch your head and turn the page thinking 'people are bonkers'.

And on the other hand we have Josie Cunningham, 22, who had a £4,800 breast operation on the NHS because being flat-chested upset her. Such stories are common - I once had a mole removed because it upset me, although if the local anaesthetic and a scalpel had cost more than £20 I'd be very surprised.

You probably think it's all about breasts until you get to the bit where she says: "I can't wait to do topless and swimsuit photo shoots and become the new Katie Price. I want the world to see the new me and want money and fame just like Katie - and my new boobs can make it happen."

When you've taken your head out the wall, you might read that she has two children, earns £9,000-a-year in telesales, and reckons: "I will get used to living the high life very easily. I already have showbiz connections as my friend's boyfriend was a contestant on The Apprentice... I've even started to collect Louis Vuitton handbags and ordered a chihuahua puppy."

This girl didn't want different breasts - she wants a different life, despite the fact the one she's chosen is packed with relationship breakdown, abuse, and general unpleasantness.

The school pupil who cut herself in a different way probably did it for many of the same reasons. An inability to express emotion, to change their world, to externalise pain and self-loathing they have inside them - it could have been for any, all, or none of those reasons.

If you were that girl's teacher, and she came into your class every day with new cuts, you'd probably do your best to tell her she was beautiful, and safe, and to talk it out. But if she kept on cutting you might well decide the lesser evil was at least to make sure she did it when you were nearby, using clean blades and bandages - a bit like a parent who decides to buy drugs for their addict child to keep them away from the dealers.

If you were Josie's doctor, you'd probably tell her much the same but there comes a point where the psychological upset of a perceived physical flaw becomes medical. That mole of mine was black and ugly, I worried it would turn cancerous, and I picked at it until it bled. Much better to have it taken off cleanly.

There are patients who hate bits of their bodies so much they try to cut off their own limbs, and there are plenty of cases in this country where a doctor carries out an unnecessary amputation because the alternative is a mentally-unwell person bleeding to death in their garage with one leg in a Workmate.

If the teachers hadn't supervised their pupil's self-harm, would she have done it anyway? If the doctor hadn't improved Josie's boobs, would she have carried on hating herself?

Bad mental health is not only difficult to imagine for many, it's not easy to fix either. The problems that lead people to slice into their own bodies - the greatest and most amazing gift they've ever had - are ignored, laughed at, or dismissed as 'bonkers'.

It would be far more useful to find out why Josie thinks Katie Price is something to aspire to, to maybe give her new boobs but see if we couldn't chuck in some self-worth along with the silicone. It would be better, in the long-term, for us to wonder why autism syndromes seem to be more common yet we haven't come up with much in terms of proper therapies to solve its problems.

Because nothing in what the teachers or doctors did, as well-intentioned as it was, has done much to fix the basic problem for each of those girls.

The student still has a pain which she can express only with razors, and Josie is still Josie - a sad young woman who thinks 'things' will make her happier, when in fact neighbours already call her Katie Cut-Price and she's setting herself up for more cruelty than an A-cup could hold.

Self-harm comes in many forms, from tearing out your own hair or sawing off a leg to eating disorders, sabotaging your relationships or taking as many drugs as possible. We all do it, and different times and in different ways.

Some have it worse than others, and it's about as horrible and difficult to deal with as a creature covered in its own faeces determinedly trying to suffocate itself in the snow.

But we dig sheep out when it happens to them.

What does that say about us?

* To find out more about self-harm click here.