Many people are misinformed about self-harm. Gurdon is one of them; in her June 2011 MPRNews interview she says that “self-mutilation is almost trendy.”
Whoa, there! Self-harm is never trendy.
Self-harm usually comes from intense, overwhelming emotional pain or other overwhelming emotions–basically, great emotional distress. Often, the emotional pain is so bad that inflicting physical pain is a distraction and a relief from the emotional pain. I sometimes used self-harm to keep myself from killing myself, and others have used it that way, too.
Most people who use self-harm are survivors of sexual abuse, trauma, or some form of oppression (such as being queer in a homophobic world).
Self-harm is a serious issue, and it is widespread. The CASE (Child and Adolescent Self-harm in Europe) study found that 3 in 10 girls and 1 in ten boys have either self-harmed or considered doing so. (I think it could be higher), and that 1 in 4 cases of self-harm goes unreported.
There are hugely detrimental effects to self-harm, even though self-harm can be what helps a teen cope with trauma or severe abuse.
Emotional Detrimental Effects of Self-Harm
–increased sense of isolation
–having to watch what you say and do; the self-harm becomes a secret to hide (which, for incest and ritual abuse survivors can be triggering, since the abuse was the first secret)
–social awkwardness (Most of us go to great lengths to hide our wounds and scars, wearing long sleeves or pants even in hot weather (arms & legs are the most common places to self-harm); not wanting to change in front of anyone, including peers (which causes problems in gym class, swimming, etc), not wearing revealing clothing; etc).
–negative attention (which increases the emotional pain, shame, etc): people often harshly judge self harm, and often: get angry at us; blame; accuse us of trying to manipulate or to get attention (all myths–see this article for more information); try to control us; punish us; may try to hospitalize us. Though I often cut so deeply I needed stitches, I never went to see a doctor. I was afraid of the reaction.
–lack of respect Often doctors and health-care professionals can treat people who self-harm with a lack of respect and with anger, blaming us. I had a friend who used self-harm where the doctor refused to give her freezing for the pain as he was stitching her up because he said she did this to herself, and I’ve heard about this from others. We do not like pain–I went out of my way to avoid it, except when I could not bear the emotional pain any more.
–scars. I have often had people stare at my old scars, had strangers come up to me and ask what happened or make offensive remarks such as “I love your body tattoos.” Or, in the case of Gurdon, calling my arm “horribly scarred.” My arm is scarred, yes. It is not horrible and I don’t find it repulsive to look at. I accept my scars; they are a part of my history and my survival.
Physical Health Risks:
–infection, which can become very serious
–nerve damage (I had some nerve damage in my feet, and a friend of mine almost lost the use of her hand)
–tendon damage which can lead to a loss of mobility
-increasing damage to the body. Since the effect of relief from the emotional pain (or other reasons we use self-harm) seems to lessen over time, the need to self-harm often increases–in frequency and severity.
–physiological shock Untreated shock can kill you.
–severe blood loss or possible death by mistake if hit an artery; you likely won’t have time to get help.
Self-harm is not trendy in any stretch of the imagination.
And talking and reading about self-harm does not encourage self-harm. It can have the opposite effect. I get reader letters every week from teens (and adults) telling me how Scars helped them stop cutting, or want to stop cutting, seek out therapy, talk to someone for the first time about their self-harm or sexual abuse or being queer.
Talking and reading about self-harm, and knowing you’re not the only one, can help. I know this from persona experience; I also know it from my reader letters. For teens who self-harm, it helps to know they’re not alone. For teens who’ve never been through it before, it helps give them more compassion and awareness, and helps them be better able to deal others who self-harm. We need to know that we are not alone, that we are not the only one who copes in this way. To feel alone in your pain only increases the pain. Finding that you’re not alone helps decrease the pain, and helps you cope.
YA author Diane Duane also found this true in her experience as a psychiatric nurse; she said that: “What I found while doing one-to-one therapy with adolescent patients is that to successfully start working through their problems, what they initially needed more than anything else was confirmation and acknowledgement from those around them that the problems existed in the first place – that they weren’t unique or alone in their situation, that other people knew about it and that it was real. Books dealing with the problem in question were and are often a useful tool to help that acknowledgement get started, and even (in some cases) in getting a patient past their own denial that they had any such difficulty at all.”
I think that the way to help encourage healing and greater compassion is to look at and talk about the painful experiences–and one of the safest ways to do that is through reading. I know that as a teen being sexually abused, I would often give someone a passage to read from a book to try to help someone understand. I wish I’d had such a book to help others understand about self-harm. That is part of why I wrote Scars.
Being able to talk about self-harm openly, and have the person respond with compassion and understanding can help encourage healing. It did for me (as well as looking at the underlying causes).
I think attitudes like Gurdon’s on self-harm are dangerous. They increase the ignorance and myths about self-harm, and encourage head-in-the-sand thinking. Self-harm exists. It needs to be talked about.
You may also want to read my articles and tips on self-harm:
Reasons Not To Hurt Yourself