The Stigma of Self-Harm

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Written by Alex Pizzola

October 5th, among many other things, was Active Minds’ “National Day Without Stigma.” Stigma, of course, is the amalgamation of lies that tell us that we need to hide who we are. The lies that say we can’t be anything that society deems bad, unsafe, or particularly weird.

Mental illness is wrapped up in stigma so tightly that sometimes I have to step back and remember just how far we have come in this fight, only to be reminded of just how much we have yet to do. Stigma is born out of ignorance, and ignorance is born out of fear. It is natural as humans to fear the things that we do not know, and there is still so much about mental illness that we do not know.

My relationship with self-harm was turned upside down when, at nineteen, I was handed the scissors that a friend had been using to make cuts on her forearms. Self-harm was a behavior that I knew about as a psychology major and an avid follower and supporter of the To Write Love On Her Arms movement, but it was something that I had never been so close to. What followed this moment was a series of phone calls and a night spent making plans to visit the counseling center in the morning. Since that night, I’ve encountered self harm in various contexts, and I’ve gained a better understanding of it. Before then, however, I didn’t understand it, and because of that, I held my own stigmas.

Though self-harm (or nonsuicidal self-injury) is not a mental illness in itself, it is often associated with mental illness and is surrounded by a multitude of myths that often do those who struggle with it more harm than good. The media portrays people who self harm as “cutters,” thereby defining them by one single action that they have taken in their lives and refusing to acknowledge that self harm comes in many different forms (including burning, pulling hair out, and even things like staying in bad relationships or sabotaging good ones and overdosing without the intent to kill oneself).

I’d like to take a moment to dispel three of the major myths that I see come up most frequently in an effort to break down some of the unnecessary stigma that still surrounds this.

*   *   *

Myth: Individuals who engage in self-harm behaviors will always engage in self harm.

Fact: Self-harm, in many ways, can be considered a coping mechanism in the absence of other, healthier coping mechanisms. It is typically a sign of emotional distress.

*   *   *

Myth: Individuals who harm themselves want to die

Fact: Not necessarily. Self-harm is often referred to as Nonsuicidal Self-Injury, which is the act of hurting oneself without the intention to kill oneself. Intention matters, however, and this should be determined on a case-by-case basis.

*   *   *

Myth: Individuals who self-harm are attention-seeking

Fact: It is true that individuals who self-harm need attention, but this makes them attention-needing. Often, we associate the term “attention-seeking” with negative or even annoying traits in people. Self-injury is not annoying. It is something that we should be concerned with.

*   *   *

So what can we do if we find that someone is self harming?

First, it is important to support the person and not the behavior. Let them know that you are there for them and that self injury is common, but that you are concerned and don’t want them to be hurting physically or emotionally. Even if you think you know what they are going through, open the floor to let them speak. Hold the space for them and listen to what they need to say: it may be the first time that they are verbalizing what they feel. Unless you are a professional who is trained to help individuals struggling with things like self harm, you should never try to handle the situation on your own, nor should you promise to keep self-harm a secret. In my friend’s case, we told a Resident Assistant in our dorm. Other trusted adults or authority figures could be teachers, mentors, coaches, parents, or other older relatives.

Most of all, remind the person that help is available and what they are coping with isn’t something that they need to do alone.

This week, let’s remember to be accepting even in the face of the things we don’t yet know or comfortably understand. Let’s start with self-injury.

*   *   *

Important Self-Injury Resources:

NAMI’s Self-Harm Fact Sheet – http://www.nami.org/getattachment/Learn-More/Fact-Sheet-Library/Self-Harm-Fact-Sheet.pdf

Connecticut Resources from To Write Love On Her Arms – https://twloha.com/local-resources/connecticut/hartford/

Crisis Text Line – www.crisistextline.org or text “GO” to 741-741

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