Content warning: This article discusses self-harm and suicide.

The pandemic has dramatically increased the numbers of people seeking help for self-harm, with Harmless experiencing a 200% increase in the number of referrals. Ash Botes, Harmless’ eLearning service manager, described the increase as being partially due to the closure of many other support services during successive lockdowns and the increased isolation and anxiety that many vulnerable people are experiencing.

Mr Botes commented: “[People] had more things to worry about; furloughing, for instance, or even being made redundant. And then, of course... there was an increase in deaths not only due to COVID but also death by suicide because of all these extra worries… Therefore, there's even more of a need for accurate and evidence-based training to help support those people in distress.”

He added that the idea behind the project is part of Harmless’ vision to drive change, doing that by breaking down misconceptions and offering various training levels so that people can progress in terms of their knowledge about specific mental health subjects.

“We very much want to drive policy change, and that kind of trickles down to the training as well… we want to change people's perceptions. We want to get rid of stigmas because that ultimately will lead to people getting the best possible support that's out there. And I think what is also key is our training on the portal, as it is developed with the support and help from our specialist trainers, but also our clinical team. So, our clients actually feed into the training,” he said.

Changing perspectives about self-harm and driving policy change

The courses offered are not solely concerned with self-harm, but additional multi-stage courses also cover suicide prevention and bereavement, and future specialist courses are in development that delves into various subjects around mental health, such as depression, psychosis, and perinatal mental health.

For Harmless, the value of producing this clinician-led content is that it reflects the experiences of the people who use the services, allowing for an interactive closeness with actual trainers whilst attendees learn at their own pace online. While Mr Botes said the courses are not free, all profits from the “affordable” classes will be used to fund Harmless’ non-for-profit activities, therefore facilitating the recovery of many more people experiencing a psychological crisis.

Currently, Harmless offers a range of services providing support for people in their community, such as self-harm therapy, suicide crisis support, and suicide bereavement therapy, as well as a text service designed to reach people who might find a phone or zoom call a barrier in getting help.

As mentioned previously, some stigmas and misconceptions surround self-harm that Harmless specifically wants to address, as Mr Botes explained: “Stigma has always been a problem surrounding self-harm… The public image is mostly focused on young girls and not the men [whose actions and symptoms may present differently] … the truth is, there's a real need to break down these misconceptions and help people look beyond the symptoms of self-harm, which is the physical act, and instead, focus on the underlying emotional distress.”

“And we know that self-harm for the majority of people is a private problem, so you will not necessarily know about it, as it's a coping strategy. So, it does what it says on the tin, really, but this does mean there's a huge silent group of people who need access. We all need support, and I think also the portal looks to support this by helping all people from the general public to specialists or professionals understand more about self-harm.”