Self-harm just ain’t that serious

January 11, 2008 at 3:32 am 26 comments

Last year I wrote about a self-harm advocacy/charity group called To Write Love On Her Arms. Being me and enjoying a good complain, I wasn’t entirely complementary about them (although my specific complaints from that post no longer apply). Part of that was probably because they’re a Christian organisation and Christian organisations have the same effect on me that nails down a blackboard have on others, but that’s not the whole story. Self-harm advocacy pisses me off in general, and I’ve only just realised why.

I can sense that I might not carry all of you along with me on this one.

Being suicidal is generally a quiet thing. Sure, some people get suicidal in loud and public ways, but generally, feeling like you want to kill yourself is the kind of thing you do while cowering behind a closed door. It’s the long nights of silent desperation, staring at the ceiling while you die a hundred times behind your eyelids. And, up until the actual act takes place, it tends to be invisible.

Self-harm isn’t like that. Self-harmers are often good at hiding it, but it’s not invisible. It involves blood and scabs and all kinds of things that most people find a bit icky and gross. Suicidal feelings are comprehensible to most people. Everyone’s had a moment where they wanted to die (us depressives have days and weeks of it). But only self-harmers really understand why someone would want to cause themselves pain repeatedly. People who are suicidal don’t, as a rule, want to die painfully. Even people who want to die don’t want to hurt – that’s how weird self-harm is to people who don’t do it.

And the most important difference is that feeling suicidal is much, much more likely to kill you than self-harm is. Sure, some instances of self-harm can cause serious damage. But the vast majority of self-harmers never need to get their wounds treated and the majority of self-inflicted wounds that are treated are superficial. And yeah, hurting yourself isn’t a nice thing to do and it sucks to do it and hide it and feel ashamed about it afterwards.

But self-harm just ain’t that serious.

Most people who self-harm stop of their own accord. They grow out of it. Not everyone does – I haven’t, for example – but most do. Without any outside help. Which isn’t to say that services for self-harm shouldn’t be available: Of course they should. I’ve been suicidal and I’ve self-harmed and both sucked. But being suicidal sucked a whole lot more.

Now I should make clear that in this paragraph I’m not talking about organisations run by self-harmers for self-harmers. But organisations like To Write Love On Her Arms and all those other oh-so-earnest self-harm organisations run by concerned people piss me off. I get the impression that it’s the blood and the scabs and the ick-how-can-you-hurt-yourself factor that’s the motivating force. And the blood and scabs and ick isn’t nice. But self-harm just ain’t that serious. And if you’re going to raise money for the mental health of young people, raise it for the ones who want to die. Some of these will also hurt themselves, but their real problem probably isn’t the fact that they hurt themselves, but that they want to never hurt again.

Because the underlying ick-how-can-you-want-to-hurt-yourself?! is hugely patronising and seems to have far more to do with the discomfort of the do-gooders than the mental health of the self-harmers. And telling people who hurt themselves that they have a huge problem that is so disturbing and needs to be fixed probably isn’t doing them any good either.

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Various appointments

26 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Gabriel...  |  January 11, 2008 at 6:07 am

    I find most attempts to create a ‘safe environment’ for Us to get better to be patronizing, but I’m not sure how they can’t be… at a certain point I think it might be up to Us to occasionally give in and let them wash our feet and get it over with. We have to start getting involved with each other, however.

    I keep saying it, and I’ll continue to say it, we need an organization designed around the AA / NA model… there are religious and non-religious frameworks the current Mental Health NGO’s could be adopting. I’m sure a case could be made for medications and non-meds groups as well, but a system of “I made it, here’s how I did it, and here’s where you can find the help” would seem to make more sense than most of the stuff out there today — which seem to operate on the “here’s a pamphlet, you’re pretty much on your own from here… good luck” model.

    Isn’t “self harm” a symptom of something larger? Aren’t being suicidal and the attempts and fantasies generally the symptoms of the same basic thing as cutting or hair pulling?

    “Sure, some people get suicidal in loud and public ways…”
    I think you mean ‘people sometimes commit suicide in loud and public ways’. You were right about suicidal thoughts etc. being a quiet thing, it’s some of the attention getting (“hey, look at me, I want to die so please help”) which can be noisy.

  • 2. exactscience  |  January 11, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    To echo what Gabe said I think self harm is the symptom of something larger, not always but something. Certainly noone I know cuts just to see the icky stuff.

    Also I have been involved with two self harm organisations. The Adolescent deliberate self harm service (part of the NHS, though I was 18-long story) and Penumbra a Scottish N.G.O. that deals with various concerns including self harm, the particular branch I attend is for 16-25 year olds.

    I am not going to say the ADSHS saved me, but being NHS they could treat the underlying cause and in turn I got some anti-depressants. Penumbra however, will the support worker I see is unbelievable (great person too which helps) and my self harm which I don’t think will ever stop has gotten less frequent and largely less severe (recent posts should not be used as evidence) and whereas I wouldn’t say ADSHS saved me, B is certainly close to it.

    I think that although it is a phase people grow out of (some people anyway) that sure it is better to have those people out of a habit forming situation sooner rather than later. And if not habit former to introduce better responses to triggers. I think all can agree that the ick isn’t healthy.

  • 3. experimental chimp  |  January 11, 2008 at 6:39 pm

    Self-harm isn’t always a symptom of anything. People with mental illnesses are more likely to self-harm, but there’s plenty of self-harmers who don’t have any diagnosable mental illness. Very few self-harmers commit suicide (Fox and Hawton estimate between 1-2%). As I said, self-harm sucks, but it’s a common experience (perhaps as many as 1 in 10 young people self-harm at some point) and usually isn’t that serious. Screening self-harmers for other mental health problems seems like a good idea, but the assumption that self-harm means serious underlying problems that must be solved is just wrong. People do just grow out of it.

    What I object to isn’t services being available for self-harmers (that’s a good thing), but the elevation of self-harm into some terrible affliction by people who think they’re being empathetic. It’s not and they’re not – lots of people do it (maybe as many as 1 in 10 have self-harmed at some point) and lots of people get over it, both with and without outside help.

  • 4. Beverley Fielden  |  January 11, 2008 at 8:09 pm

    MMM,
    I am 42 years old now!!! II remember drawing blood, cutting my arms, and sticking pins in places to cause pain also drank a lot took drugs and did other things to block out the reality of life. That was 30 years ago. It was cultural. I was a punk rocker of the 1970-80’s. it was cool it was accepted and it did relieve the frustrations i was feeling at 18 years old. Margaret Thatcher was in power and saying all youth were feckless and irresponsible.

    But I grew up…learned responsibility, self-respect and self-control.

    The point I am trying to make is that is is not always symptom of an internal reality…..but self harm is linked to the external frustrations of modernity, the age range of the person and the mindless ignorance of the services that perpetuate a sense of self pity. thus facilitating self harm as cultural medical condition that is in need of fixing.

    self harm has always happened in pre modernity, (ie. de sade)and gulags) post modernity (BDSM) and probably always will continue. It may not need fixing. maybe it just evolves,

  • 5. Ruth  |  January 12, 2008 at 12:04 pm

    I think when self-harm is not a sign of some other mental health issue then people do just tend to grow out of it and this is good.

    However, there are people out there for whom self-harm is the only coping strategy they have in their lives, and even if they do only do it superficially, they still deserve help and support, in a way that they want it. I agree that a self-harm organisation may not be the best idea for all self-harmers.

    I have been referred to the Deliberate Self Harm Team for an appointment on Tuesday. I was referred from A&E after needing stitches, and unfortunately I don’t think it should get to the point of people needing medical treatment before medical professionals start taking it seriously and start believing that you need some help and support.

    But that’s just my little bug-bear.

  • 6. cathy  |  January 13, 2008 at 7:29 am

    wake up people.. It is interesting to read some of these posts. For one, self injurious behavior is a very personal manner. There are different reasons for this. It has many causes, and it seems like kids these days are getting younger and younger. It is not cool nor is it the in thing to do .You are wrong to think that self harm is not serious behavior. The problem with that is self harm can get worse, and it can kill. It can lead to more and more violence directed to oneself. Yes, some people get over it by themselves and don’t do serious damage. However, not always. It is not just cutting either that people engage in. There are many forms of self harm and it must be taken seriously.
    If you have ever met a person who has severely self harmed this would probably change your perspective .Yes, we are out there, and yes, there are older, adults who engage in the behavior .And yes, it can be a lifelong battle.
    Yes, self harm needs taken seriously, it is a shame that others don’t see that.

  • 7. experimental chimp  |  January 13, 2008 at 5:08 pm

    Beverley: Thanks for the comment. I don’t think I’d place self-harm on a continuum with BDSM, though.

    Ruth: Services being made available to self-harmers is a good thing, sure.

    cathy: I am someone who’s seriously self-harmed. My self-harm has required surgery under general anaesthetic. And you know what? I still think most self-harm isn’t that serious or likely to become that serious I’m 25, by the way.

    I’m not suggesting that self-harm shouldn’t be treated. I’m suggesting that the mawkish attitude (some) self-harm organisations tend to adopt towards self-harm is a bad thing. And partly that’s because most self-harm isn’t that serious (although some is).

  • 8. Gabriel...  |  January 14, 2008 at 3:51 am

    With all due respect to those who follow “The Cult”… are you trying to describe the Emo-ization of the disorder/disease?

  • 9. experimental chimp  |  January 14, 2008 at 4:47 am

    Gabriel: Kind of. Partially, at least.

  • 10. Gabriel...  |  January 14, 2008 at 5:32 am

    I was trying to do the same thing with the whole “no art in manic depression thing”, but I couldn’t quite nail down what I wanted to say… trying to separate the fad-ists from the Real is not an easy thing, especially when the fad-ists believe they’re Real and the really sick are told they’re Not… or that they’re fad-ists.

  • 11. exactscience  |  January 14, 2008 at 11:13 am

    Forgive me the whole emo thing is a major issue for me.

    I have hung out and posted on some self harm support forums (very strict on not glamourising it ought like that) and there is a huge number of folk who believe the emo thing is silly and petty.

    If people are cutting themselves to fit in with a, still minority, sub-culture group then something isn’t right. I am not saying that it requires medical or psychological treatment but it certain helps establish what can become a dangerous and habit forming behavior.

    Similarly to the whole manic depressive artists thing. manic depression does not an artist make similarly cutting does not a person in need of treatment make. Though in both cases behavior can strengthen the argument.

    I am rambling. You are right – that for a lot of folk, perhap especially the emo kids, self harm is a silly dalliance with blades and burns for awhile. The support needs to be in place for those where it is symptomatic of something larger and more insidious.

  • 12. experimental chimp  |  January 14, 2008 at 3:46 pm

    I don’t actually think that there’s groups of people self-harming. I do think that self-harm has a certain romanticism to it, which some subcultures are linked to.

    I think the majority of people who self-harm (reliable figures suggest 10% of young people do at some time), never actually touch the system. They don’t go to hospital for treatment, or seek out psychiatric help, many of them probably don’t even turn up on internet support groups. I’m not saying it’s not a real issue for these people, just that it’s probably not a deeply important one. And this current trend of making self-harm an Important! Issue! For! Young! People! is, as far as I can see, just going to drag a lot of people who’d be fine anyway, into the mental health system.

    I still don’t think self-harm is symptomatic of anything. I’d be happier calling it a risk factor for other mental health problems, rather than a symptom of any in particular.

  • 13. cathy  |  January 26, 2008 at 8:17 am

    self harm means different things to people .It is a personal issue. AND, most of the time kids will and do grow out of the behaviors. However, not always.
    What disturbs me the most about this blog is that you are guessing and making assumptions on a very complex issue.
    It starts in the teen years mostly, however, not ALL people stop .It can escalate into something far more then you ever would understand.
    There are people of both genders self harming severely well into their 50’s .
    These are the people who are never talked about, so keep acting like it does not happen, and it is only seen in kids. You moron, there is so much more to self harm then your little ignorant brain can ever realise.

  • 14. cathy  |  January 26, 2008 at 8:31 am

    ok, i just read your response to my first post…. Your 25? OK, your still young in my book.
    So perhaps you have had experiences of serious self iinjury. Now I shall say sorry to you for the last post.
    As for me, yes, i too have engaged in severe self injury behaviors . And at the age of nearly 40 I am not the typical teen am I ?
    Some of those internet support sites are ok. It is a place for people to get support and not feel so alone.
    What I hate to see happen is a trend for people to self harm when older. It is a shame to watch the trend now a days. Self harm is glorifed and it is disgusting among the kids.
    thankfully, most kids outgrow si .
    I hope i did not offend you , your not ignorant . i just get frustrated on this subject and it is because I have such a long history of certain behaviors, and illnesses.
    I know i am in the minority of self harmer’s, and it not a pleasant behavior , nor do I feel good about what has happened with all of severe trauma self injury has given me.

  • 15. lingeringmemory  |  January 31, 2008 at 4:00 am

    Self harm is beyond cutting… I know of several other teens who have been injuring themselves since before they were teens. I’m talking about 8,9,10,11,12 year olds hitting, biting, clawing themselves.
    I never hurt myself to fit in with anyone. I never gave what I did to myself a name until I was 13, I’d been cutting for a year, and doing other forms since I was 10, 11 years old.
    SI isn’t a big deal to me anymore, I live with it everyday. To some it is taboo, to others it is some ritual to get attention. I don’t know if I’ll ever grow out of it. Sure, I might stop for a month, a year even. I’ve done that before, but my point is it comes back…
    For people who grew up self harming themselves, it gets hard to get rid of. And sure, feelings of suicide stay with you, but often I think of harming myself everyday. There are times I don’t even remember anything I did that day, my mind is just so full of thoughts. Suicide and self harm can go hand in hand. They are equal in seriousness.
    Need I remind you that there are people who claim to be suicidal, but only claim so because they want attention, or because one of their friends claimed to be suicidal. You can not dismiss self-injury because “people grow out of it” when people grow out of their suicidal thoughts as well.

  • 16. untreatable  |  February 2, 2008 at 11:36 pm

    People who are balanced and healthy do not purposely hurt themselves especially on a near daily basis. If a child/teenager/adult approaches you and shows the marks on their arms how can you tell who is just seeking attention and who is in trouble? You can’t and as a mental health professional or a parent you really can not take the chance. The oldest self harm trick in the book is you keep one cut visible so people focus on that and think the problem is in hand or small but not knowing the damage the person has caused on less visible areas of their bodies. I know when it comes to me self harm is a tool that I have used for two decades to make sure I don’t totally lose control and take my life, it is a very negative tool but unfortunately it works and difficult to stop. To be honest part of me is wondering if you are trying to play if off to down play your own self harm but that is just speculation, wait til you black out in the middle of a cutting sessions and you will see how accidents can and do happen.

  • 17. experimental chimp  |  February 3, 2008 at 12:17 am

    I don’t really understand your focus on ‘seeking attention’. Some people who self-harm do it as a form of attention seeking, most don’t. Regardless of the motive involved, people who self-harm deserve to be treated with compassion and respect and to receive whatever help is necessary, whether that’s dealing directly with the self-harm or with any underlying mental illness.

  • 18. lingeringmemory  |  March 12, 2008 at 11:57 pm

    Since I can’t delete my previous comment, I say disregard it. I wasn’t thinking. I normally don’t… Any way I don’t feel that way anymore…. Sorry for making a fuss.

  • 19. darkvampiress42  |  May 20, 2010 at 2:36 am

    Self-Harm is very serious. There are people who use self-harm to get attention but self-harm is very serious. I speak as one who has a self-harm addiction. It is serious because of the fact that it gets progressively worse. Each time one has to go a little deeper than the time before, a few more cuts than previous. It is a terrible addiction and it is really really difficult to stop and even when you do you miss it and have to fight everyday not to slip back. Self-harm becomes a routine, something that becomes just like taking a shower or washing your hands.

  • 20. Heather29  |  April 8, 2011 at 9:35 am

    Blood-letting was an ancient way of healing the bodies and souls of people who were ill. Could modern blood-letting be a way of healing today’s much more complicated souls?

  • 21. Kittie  |  June 22, 2011 at 11:06 pm

    Self harm can be very serious and cause death!
    I am a serious self harmer. I self harm to block out reality or as a coping mechanism to stress. Self harm isn’t just about scratching it can be as severe as severing arteries, swollowing razors, stabbing oneself (just a few examples)
    I read a book called ‘cut’ which was written from a religious perspective and basically said people who sh are posessed by the devil. What a load of crap.
    Oh n Heather…bloodletting does not heal bodies and souls I’ve had 7 transfusions because of self harm all of which I had loc and was told that one more ml of blood loss and I’d have been dead. I’m not healed, still sh.
    People who self harm generally have other things going on that they do not know how to deal with.

  • 22. Shea  |  November 14, 2011 at 2:31 am

    Has someone mentioned the link between self harm and suicide? I don’t think those two things are mutually exclusive. As someone who cuts and hits (and who was looking for HELP when I stumbled upon this article), I’m surprised to see self harm and suicide in such different categories. Of course there are people out there who do not associate SI with killing one’s self, but speaking from personal experience there have been a handful of times cutting when I thought to myself “I will do anything to not wake up tomorrow”. And I wouldn’t consider myself a serious self-harmer.
    Anyways, I ramble on, but seriously? Do you honestly thing that self harm isn’t a big deal? I’m trying to understand your point of view, but can you try to understand mine? Did I miss something? Shouldn’t there be outlets for people like me who are trying to do everything in their power to be better, seeking help, undergoing therapy? Surely every “anti-self harm” organization/program isn’t all bad.. And I apologize if I offend anyone, I’m only seeking answers. I don’t want to be a fuck up anymore.

  • 23. Ernestine  |  September 28, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    Wonderful website you have here but I was curious if you knew of any user discussion forums that cover the same topics talked about in this article? I’d really love to be a part of group where I can get feed-back from other experienced people that share the same interest. If you have any recommendations, please let me know. Cheers!

  • 24. ella256  |  November 28, 2013 at 1:08 am

    Hey, I stumbled across this and I guess my main response is to the title. I agree with most of what you say and if my brain wasn’t so fuzzy I would leave a better, more articulate comment but I’m just gonna go for the basics. I agree that in most cases self harm isn’t a huge deal, if a mental disorder goes along with it – that’s what needs to be addressed. I’m not a big fan of advocacy groups and such although I see their merit and intentions are good. Anyway what I wanted to say is, sometimes self harm can be serious. I’ve needed transfusions, surgery, skin grafts, specialist care, all that stuff numerous times. All that started out as scratches and tiny cuts and escalated. Even minor harm should be taken seriously and offered help.
    Tis all

  • 25. treefrog158  |  January 14, 2014 at 8:29 pm

    Totally agree on this one. It might leave some ugly scars but the results of other mental instabilities can be much worse. If anything, self-harm is a form of control, finding a way to cope with the bad feelings. It’s the people who can’t cope with the feelings that need more help.

  • 26. fearparadise  |  August 25, 2014 at 3:52 pm

    Ok so with what you are saying, I self harm and I have been in serious situations and have in one case just about bled to death in my tub. Self harm can be incredibly dangerous if you have the intent to one day die because if you think it’s not something to worry about, you are basically letting them take a knife in their hands and stab themselves to death. Other mental instabilities may be worse, yes, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of deliberate self harm.

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Hi, I'm James. I'm a 26 year old guy from England with bipolar disorder (currently well controlled). I also have a circadian rhythm sleep disorder (not so well controlled). This blog has charted my journey from mental illness, through diagnosis and, recently, into recovery. It's not always easy, but then, what is?

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