Reading the news this week you could be forgiven thinking that self-harm is a 21st Century phenomena, often associated with young people and fashionably claimed by “celebs”. The truth is it has always been with us and probably always will be. When I “came out” and disclosed my history of cutting (partly because it was hard to hide, mainly to address the stigma), I was amazed by the chorus of whispered “me too” by the most unexpected of people. Of course, for those who had the courage to ask, the question was always… why? My answer was never easy to hear. It took me 30 years to understand that at the root of this issue for me, was the need to punish myself for perceived failures, borne out of chronic low self-esteem and only expressed in the most private and intimate moments of emotional pain. Severe pain; almost too difficult to express in any other way and certainly not pain that you can share with anyone else, particularly those who would care.
And so it is, for thousands of people across a nation, who this week are wrestling with the role of social media in how we communicate some of our most difficult experiences of emotional ill-health. We have finally broken the stigma of silence around our mental health enough to be able to begin to speak about it and almost immediately we are debating the need to protect ourselves from sharing some of the worse taboos it contains. The Big Media companies such as Instagram and Facebook have acknowledged the need for responsibility in the content they host on behalf of their users while, quite rightly, stating that they are not prepared to sit in judgement of what is appropriate support or the moments when someone finally reaches out and breaks their silence over their behaviour. I think we can all agree that what appears online should at the very least be moderated when users have no real control over search algorithms, leading to images that can appear all too graphically and uninvited. Certainly, advertisers need to think clearly if they are happy with their ads appearing next to high res images that are shocking to anyone who has never self-harmed.
So the question is where does the media’s responsibilities stop and our own social ownership begin? I wonder would I have been tempted to self-harm more often or more severely if aware of the extent and nature of other people’s pain. Would I have committed worse acts of damage on myself bolstered by the knowledge of those who seek to share techniques? Or would I have found solidarity with others, a support network of sufferers that could have reduced my isolation and fear that no-one would ever understand? Questions I may never know the answer to.
However, I do know this… no-one has ever really talked to me about my experiences. Indeed, most shy away from the prospect of a conversation that may help them to understand- just too difficult to stare that intense emotion in the face. Even clinical professionals have avoided eye-contact when asking obligatory questions and hastily scribbling the answers that help them assess whether you’re crazy enough to deserve an acute bed for the night. In fact, I wasn’t crazy or psychotic, rather I was painfully aware of how mad the acts themselves might seem. But for me, the cuts people saw as disturbing was the relief I needed to ease the pain in the moment and prevent the build-up to suicide. In short, my self-harm kept me alive for my loved ones.
In the end, addressing the core issues as to why someone finds themselves in acute emotional pain, without relief of support or the ability to reach out for help, will be the only way we as a society can tackle the reality of self-harm. We don’t need to see images online to know the strength of the urge to act. We don’t need prompting from others to push through the physical pain to find some respite from our minds. But we do need to know that when we finally seek help to cope in a better way we are not judged as weak or following fads but as people who have gone to the darkest edges of human experience and have survived to tell our stories to a world who doesn’t look away in embarrassment but learns to sit with the uncomfortable truth – that we all walk the fine line of emotional health.