Self-harm on the rise: Mum’s photos of teens exhibited to promote debate about 'taboo issue'

Photographer Jude Wacks and daughter Ellie talk revealingly about a 'widespread' problem


Like any mum, photographer Jude Wacks has always been protective of her children.

So her devastation at discovering her teenage daughter Ellie was self-harming is completely understandable.

Talking to the JC at the family home in Willesden Green, Mrs Wacks recalls the moment she came across a small blade in Ellie’s JfS blazer.

“I found it by accident. She was just short of her 15th birthday.

“It is like anything, you rationalise it away. You think about all the reasons it could be there. You don’t want to imagine the reality. But then there it is and it is happening.”

The Brondesbury Park Synagogue member recalls feeling “a lot of shame and embarrassment. Why didn’t you know? Why is it happening? What did you do wrong?”

To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, the mother of four teenage daughters is attempting to raise awareness of the growth in self-harm among the young through a photographic exhibition for communal charity Jami.

Titled The Best Days Of Your Life and being displayed at Jami’s Head Room café in Golders Green, it sensitively depicts a group of 18-to-20-year-olds who self-harmed through their time at secondary school. A number of the subjects are Jewish, her daughter among them.

Although Ellie does not like showing her scars, she agreed to be photographed to help start a conversation about the issue — and also to reduce the stigma.

According to a 2017 report, cases of self-harm reported to GPs among UK girls under the age of 17 increased by 68 per cent over just three years.

“I don’t know why but it certainly feels more prevalent in society,” Mrs Wacks says.

Ellie feels the rise could be attributed to a number of factors.

“Everyone is looking for a reason and I don’t think it is that easy. But I do think expectations of young people have changed,” she says.

The study also suggested that self-harm among teenagers was three times more prevalent for girls.

Ellie, now 19, first self-harmed six years ago and was hospitalised on more than one occasion.

She says she checks her social media a lot less after finding it “was giving me anxiety. It can make vulnerable people hate themselves sometimes.

“I can keep myself away from it so I’m not so badly impacted.”

Now that she is “coping much better” thanks to therapy and “learning from my experiences”, Ellie wishes that she could have convinced herself “not to worry so much.

“Whatever it is you are worrying about isn’t going to be such a problem. Your negative feelings might not go away totally but the intensity that makes you do negative things will.”

Since Mrs Wacks started taking the pictures — initially for a university project — others wanting to share their story have contacted her.

“I don’t think it is a particularly Jewish issue,” she says.

“But as a community, I do think it is one of those things that we don’t like to think is happening to us.”

She and Ellie will also lead an open discussion at Head Room on May 13 on how self-harm has impacted on their family.

Talking to her daughter and her friends had made her appreciate “how widespread” the problem has become.

But the subject is still very much taboo, so she resolved to take the photos to publicise it.

“Ellie would be hiding it from me but so was society. People didn’t want to talk about it and they didn’t know what to say.”

In Ellie’s case, accessing the proper support had been difficult.

“The school wasn’t equipped at the time to handle it. They didn’t have the right support structures in place. They didn’t even have the right language to talk about it. People would say you need to practice mindfulness.

“I didn’t have the time to be mindful about mindfulness when my child was ending up in hospital.”

Due to the severity of Ellie’s case, she was seen quickly by child mental health services.

But Mrs Wacks recalls the assessment process as complicated and “it took a long time to get everything in place that she needed.

“She was having low moods and developed an eating disorder on top of the self-harm. While the professionals know all these things go hand in hand, they are not treated together.”

People distanced themselves from Ellie’s situation because “they didn’t know how to behave or what to say”, making things even harder to deal with.

She hopes the exhibition will encourage people to talk openly about the subject.

Ellie wants it to make people less obsessed with “finding reasons” as to why teens do it and give friends and family the tools to talk to those self-harming.

When compiling the exhibition, Mrs Wacks was concerned about the prospect of the images being shared online by young people.

“I didn’t want to glamorise it in any way, which is why the pictures are so simple and not focused on the self-harm. At the same time, I didn’t want to hide it.

“I want it to show what the consequences are for both society and the individuals of ignoring this ‘invisible illness’.

“A lot of the young people who have taken part said something shifted for them after being involved in the project.

“I think it helped them to accept themselves.”

It is a view her daughter relates to.

“I don’t think I have fully recovered — I might even self-harm again. But if this can help someone who is struggling to talk about it, then that is the goal.”

Jami notes that “self-harm is not a new expression of distress. Self-harm in young people has, however, received more profile in the media.

“Self-harm is not a diagnosable illness in itself but a symptom of underlying distress and needs to be understood as an attempt by young people to either communicate or manage difficult feelings and experiences they are navigating through their adolescence.

“If parents are worried about their children, they need to begin a conversation with them, attempting to understand what they are going through.

“Rather than pass judgment, listen with compassion and, of course, get help from a mental health professional either at school or through your GP.”

The exhibition will be on display from May 13-19 during opening hours at Head Room, 89 Golders Green Road NW11

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive