IT’S the silent plea for help cried by young people through cuts and bruises every day.

“At least half of the men and women we see at Carlow Place self-harm in some form,’’ says Tracy Ingram, Manager of Centacare’s Outer North Youth Homelessness Service (ONYHS).

“They think it’s normal behaviour, especially girls aged 16 and up.

“ For them it’s just part of growing up but it can become quite emotionally crippling.’’

Tracy says the public taboo and stigma surrounding self-harm is inflamed by a lack of understanding in the community, schools and some emergency departments.

The restructure of mental health services across the state for young people aged 16 or under has also created some confusion about how to access support.

“We’re stepping up to fill that gap by upskilling ourselves around self-harm so we are in the best position to support these young people who are highly vulnerable with complex needs,’’ Tracy says.

“Wards don’t push it away, but they don’t always see self-harm as a serious issue.

“If the young person can talk about tomorrow and the next day, and they are not going to jump in front of a train, they’re sent home and go back to being vulnerable – usually on their own in the middle of the night. It exacerbates the situation.’’

Cutting is the most common form of self-harm. It also presents through piercings, self-tattoos and risk-taking behaviour.

A 2010 survey of 12,000 Australians published in the Medical Journal of Australia last month found nearly one quarter of young women and a fifth of young men aged 20 to 24 years have self-harmed.

Of the 301 young people supported by Centacare’s ONYHS from July to December last year, 201 were aged 18-24 years, 114 were experiencing mental health issues, 34 were victims of domestic or family violence and 139 were homeless.

“Usually everything is so overwhelming for them internally they will do something externally to release that pain,’’ Tracy says.

At Carlow Place, which supports young people aged 15-18 who are homeless, Centacare staff remove sharps and use art therapy and other activities to distract young people at risk.

Where necessary, a safety plan is also put in place in conjunction with Child Adolescent Mental Health Services.

Tracy is calling on schools to broaden their bullying prevention strategies which primarily focus on violence at the expense of other triggers of poor mental health.

“Teachers will sometimes dismiss milder forms of self-harm and even label it as disruptive behaviour,’’ she says.

“As a sector, we need to collaborate with schools to change their perception of mental health so teachers recognise early when a student isn’t coping, and is in distress, due to challenges outside the classroom.’’

* Youth homelessness is being highlighted this week as part of a national campaign to raise awareness and support for young people who experience or are at risk of homelessness.

Today we mark  Youth Homelessness Matters Day, a call to everyone to take action in publicly stating that youth homelessness matters and should be prevented.