Written by: Emma Hinds
“They’re just doing it because they’re being goth.”
“Self-harm is such a girly thing.”
“They just like pain.”
“They must be suicidal.”
“They’re just doing it for attention.”
As a young person in my teens, I felt the urge to self-harm. Over a period of several years, I managed these urges in destructive ways – cutting/scratching my skin repetitively, but also controlling my eating habits in harmful ways. In the early 2000s, self-harm awareness was not what it should have been, even inside institutions that should have known better. School teachers were only focused on making the behaviour stop, rather than understanding where it was coming from. Doctors were only concerned with re-gaining weight rather than looking at why it had been lost. I heard every unhelpful, stigmatised self-harm cliché under the sun, most of them are listed above. The most hurtful to me was the accusation that I was just doing it for attention – the last thing I wanted was for people to find out! Nothing anybody did or said helped me manage my urges in healthy ways. Instead, they made me feel alone.
The truth is, I was not alone. Statistics tell us that 10% of young people self-harm regularly. 17% of adolescents will admit to having self-harmed at least once in their life. 15% of college and university students will engage in self-harm, and whilst women are more likely to self-harm than men, males represent 35% of the total of self-injury cases. Males are much more likely to keep their self-injury a secret, no doubt in part due to the stigma associated with it. When we look at these statistics, we can respond in two ways. We can see these numbers as evidence of a group of troubled people who need to stop their behaviour, or we can see these statistics as proof that the urge for self-injury is part of a human response that we all have. It’s about how we manage our impulses that makes the difference.
Have you ever felt so overwhelmed that you want to scream, shout or throw something? Or so out of control of your life that you just have to do something, anything to get hold of yourself? How do you manage that impulse? That familiar feeling is often the seed for many self-harm behaviours. When we recognize this, when we see that when a young person cuts themselves for the same reason that we might have a glass of wine or do some extra hard reps at the gym, then we de-stigmatise self-injury.
What happens then, you might ask? When we de-stigmatise self-harm are we just allowing destructive behaviour? I don’t believe so, and neither do self-harm specialists. If we look at the cycle of self-harm below, we can see that a key part of this cycle is shame/grief.
From my own experience and from the experience of self-harm specialists, when we break the cycle at the point of shame, it has a significant impact on breaking the cycle completely. So how can we help reduce shame about something that so many people feel intensely guilty about? Here are some ideas below:
- Focus on the impulse behind the behaviour. When we focus on the behaviour we are telling someone that the most important thing is what they do, not what they feel. Actually, what they need to talk about is how they feel to help them process where the impulse is coming from.
- If a person does not want to stop self-harming, know that you can’t force them. Instead, encourage the person to try less destructive forms of self-injury: they could try holding an ice-cube, or putting a rubber band around their wrist that they flick when they have the urge. There are lots of suggestions for self-harm substitutes that help a person gain release without doing long-term damage. Check some out here.
- If a person does want to stop self-harming, suggest that they start employing distraction techniques. They could try the 15-minute rule, explained here on the Life Signs website. This technique helps the person take control of their feelings rather than have their feelings control them.
- Let a person know that what they are doing is not shameful, or awful and you are willing to support and listen to them without judgement. When we help people break free of shame, we help them break free of the self-harm stigma.
If you are a person who feels the shame of stigma concerning self-harm, we want to let you know you are not alone and that your choice to stay alive is courageous. We recognise that you are doing what you need to do to keep your head above water, and we want you to know that we are here for you. If you are ready to speak out, please consider making use of the following organisations, or reach out to us online.
About the Author: Emma Hinds
Emma is a writer living and working in Manchester. She is a mental health advocate and has been blogging about mental health for the last ten years. Emma has a history of veating disorders and is currently living with a diagnosis of OCD and chronic depression. She has been working specifically with young people struggling with their mental health for the last four years and is now supporting the Lily Jo Project’s On Track follow up schools programs. You can see Emma’s work and follow her mental health blog here. You can also follow her on socials here: twitter@EmmaLouisePH and instagram@elphreads.