Self-Harm Is NOT Trendy

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.

You can read more about some of the possible physical effects and ways to deal with them in Self-Harm: Limiting the Damage leaflet and First Aid For Self-Injury on Secret Shame.

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

Alternatives To Self-Harm
Helpful Responses to Someone Who’s Self-Harmed
How To Stop Self-Harming
What To Do When You Feel Like Harming Yourself (long)

Some more good resources are:
Secret Shame (highly recommended)
Cutting and Self-Harm

About Cheryl Rainfield

I write the books I needed and couldn't find as a teen. I write teen fiction--paranormal fantasy and gritty realistic fiction. I'm the author of SCARS (WestSide Books, 2010) #1 ALA QuickPicks, and Governor General Literary Award Finalist, HUNTED (WestSide Books, Oct 2011), STAINED (Harcourt, 2013), The Last Dragon (HIP Books, Sept 2009), and Walking Both Sides (HIP Books, 2011). I also enjoy drawing, surfing the web, connecting with people I like, doing crafts, and being with my dog.
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9 Responses to Self-Harm Is NOT Trendy

  1. Gillian Chan says:

    This is a powerful response, Cheryl – knowledgeable and balanced. I hope Gurdon sees it and learns from it.

  2. Thank you so much, Gillian! I really appreciate that! (hugging you)

  3. Thanks for posting this, Cheryl. It disturbs me greatly when people talk about self harm being trendy. When I was a teen struggling with self injury in the 90s, there was a lot of hubbub about it being trendy too and you know what? It just made me feel more ashamed and secretive about it. That of course is why I wrote my book BALLADS OF SUBURBIA dealing with self injury because I was so desperate to find a book like that (or like SCARS or WILLOW when I was a teenager). Thanks for getting these very important FACTS about self-harm out there.

  4. Stephanie, thank you! It really disturbs me, too. It feels dismissive of those of us who used or use self-harm, and also perhaps encouraging fear in people. I know what you mean, that it made you more ashamed and secretive as a teen, and I’m sorry.

    I’m glad you dealt with self-harm in Ballads of Suburbia! It’s in my list of recommended books on self-harm on the right side bar.

    I’m always so glad when people speak out and help break silence, help encourage healing.

  5. Thanks for recommending, BALLADS, Cheryl. I recommend SCARS all the time as well because it is so important for the teens who need these books to find them. I agree when people break the silence, they do help encourage healing. Silence is suffering.

  6. Thank you, Stephanie; I really appreciate that! And, oh yes, silence is suffering. It makes the pain so much worse….

  7. Sarah Hartt-Snowbell says:

    Good for you – Cheryl! If anything, you’ve certainly learned to stand up for yourself 🙂 Good too because your “notoriety” has augmented your fame. We can’t hide from the dark side … it’s always there … some live it – some don’t … but we all have to be young-adult enough to appreciate its existence and cope with it.

  8. Aw, thank you, Sarah! (hugging you) Yes, I can speak up for myself more now, and especially when I have support;that makes all the difference! I agree that we can’t hide from the dark, that it’s there. I think it’s better to get it out in the open and talk about it.

  9. Anna says:

    Thank you so much for this informative and important post. Teens, parents, and community members need to be educated on, not shielded from, such information.

    There’s a terrific book everyone should share with their parents, friends, and age-appropriate children: “Cut”, an intense and realistic account of cutting, treatment, and other disorders. It’s by Patricia McCormick and it’s one of the only books of its kind I’ve seen that deals with these issues in an informational and teen-friendly way. Highly recommended.

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