Guest blogger Alice Rose is an 18-year-old mental health nursing student living in the UK. From personal experience, I am very passionate about tackling the stigma attached to mental health.
Talking about self-harm is often seen as controversial. Self-harm is a sensitive topic and despite increasing awareness about mental health issues, it is still something that is misunderstood by many, including some health professionals. It is often seen as “attention seeking,” for example, and this stigma means many people who struggle with self-injury or self-harm are reluctant to seek help. They may feel embarrassed and ashamed or may be worried about how other people will react.
The overall aim of this blog post is to try to educate people about self-harm, whether those people are professionals, parents, friends or family of people who struggle with self-harm, or for people who are interested in learning more about mental health awareness. The NHS (the National Health Service in the UK) defines self-harm as when someone intentionally damages or injures their body.
1. “People self-harm for attention.”
Many people who struggle with self-harm often feel ashamed and guilty about it. They may spend years secretly struggling, going to great lengths to hide any injuries or any evidence of self-harming in order to avoid detection, often due to the fear of embarrassment.
There are many reasons why someone may self-harm, such as to punish themselves, to escape from traumatic memories, to gain a sense of feeling in control and sometimes as a way of expressing suicidal thoughts/ideation without acting on them. Perhaps they are under a lot of pressure at school and work, feeling emotionally numb, anxious or depressed, experiencing sexual, physical or emotional abuse, coping with cultural pressures, or perhaps finding it difficult to come to terms with their sexuality. Although these are common reasons why someone might self-harm, they are not limited to the above.
One of the major misconceptions about self-harm is that people do it for attention. This often prevents those who self-harm from seeking help due to the fear of being seen as manipulative, particularly by professionals. Judgments like this often leave people feeling alienated and isolated. These sorts of comments can prevent people from seeking help and recovery from their self-injury. If someone does self-harm for attention, however, then their behaviors need to be understood in a wider context to try to find ways to help and support them. If someone does hurt themselves for attention, this an unhealthy way to cope — they deserve non-judgmental support, and they have a right to have their distress taken seriously and have people there to listen to them
2. “Self-harm is a suicide attempt that has not been completed.”
There is a distinguishable difference between self-harm and suicide. Self-harm is an unhealthy way of coping with stressors in life for some people, whereas suicide is where someone ends their own life. Some people may actually self-harm as a negative coping mechanism for dealing with life, while some who self-harm may find that physical pain reassures them that they are still alive.
However, some people do die as a result of self-harm.
When preventing somebody from self-harming, it’s important to provide them with a realistic and healthy coping mechanism that they are willing to engage with, such as therapy. If you struggle with self-injury, I recommend having a look at www.selfharm.co.uk, which has sections on staying safe.
3. “‘Superficial’ self-harm isn’t an issue.”
One of the myths about self-harm is that if it is minor, it is not a serious issue. However, minor physical injury does not mean there is not a problem. Medical healthcare professionals may focus on physical damage done to the body, as well as the risks and dangers of someone self-harming. However, this is looking at the physical side of things, rather than the emotional or psychological side. The severity of self-harm does not determine the intensity of emotional distress someone is experiencing. It is very important that we focus on the reason why someone is self-harming, rather than the severity of the physical injury. If somebody hurts themselves, then they are not OK, even if it doesn’t leave a mark. Anybody who self-harms deserves non-judgmental support, space and time to help them recover.
4. “Only white teenage girls self-harm.”
In society, there is a stereotypical idea that only young, white teenage girls struggle with self-harm. However, this is not true; self-harm can affect anybody, regardless of their gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age, background and social class. Some recent statistics suggest that young girls are more likely to self-harm than their male counterparts; however, it is likely that these statistics may be more similar. Boys have emotions and difficulties in their life too, so they can self-harm too. In society and in British culture in general, it is often believed that it is more acceptable for girls to show and express their emotions than boys. There is a general idea in society that it is weak for men and boys to express their feelings; however, this is simply not true. Everyone should have the right to discuss their difficult feelings and reach out for support, regardless of gender.
Due to there being a culture where men are often discouraged from discussing their mental health, this may mean they often struggle with self-harm and mental health issues such as depression but are less likely to reach out for the support they need. Due to the pressure for men not to discuss their emotions, this may mean they are less likely to reach out for support for their mental health and therefore struggle in silence for many years.
In addition to this, there is the stereotype that only young people self-harm; however, this is not true. People of all ages may self-harm. Some may begin self-harming as a young person, and then continue this unhealthy behavior into adulthood, while some people do start self-harming later on in life.
5. “People who self-harm enjoy pain.”
Self-harm is an unhealthy coping mechanism for emotional distress and a way of releasing these feelings through physical harm.
Some people who self-harm may feel numb or otherwise unable to feel pain due to the high intensity of the emotions they are experiencing. However, once they have self-harmed, the pain may seem to become unbearable. The fact is, people do not enjoy self-harm, but they may find that the physical pain is more bearable than the emotional pain they are experiencing.
People who require medical attention or intervention for self-harm are occasionally not offered pain relief such as anesthetic when they need stitches. This is because some professionals may assume that people who self-harm enjoy pain. This shows a complete lack of respect and compassion, as well as a huge misunderstanding about self-harm. This is something that needs to change.