Recent statistics published by the NHS reveal that a startling one in four women aged 16 to 24 have self-harmed . This is a fact I know all too well from delivering training on the taboo topic of self-harm and an issue I am personally acquainted with. I am one of those women. I am that statistic.
I'm Grace, a 24-year-old biochemist turned mental health campaigner, and I have a long history of self-harm. Ten years ago I never would have made that confession, but I have learnt a lot since then.
Self-harm was something I had 'dabbled' with as a young teen, struggling with difficult situations, anxiety and low mood. At that time I wouldn't consider myself to have had a mental illness. But we all have mental health and we all need to know how to look after it. I didn't have any other tools to cope, so I resorted to self-harm. Although it was something I did on the odd occasion, my self-harm didn't become a big problem until a few years later, during my recovery from anorexia.
Eating disorders are also commonly misunderstood conditions. Despite the many misconceptions, they are much more about control and emotions than they are about food. My eating disorder gave me control and the ability to numb my feelings. I did not receive the necessary medical support during my recovery, so as one coping method was taken away from me, I replaced it with another. I began self-harming again. I was very depressed, and as my mood continued to drop, my self-harm became more frequent and more dangerous. It reached the point where I couldn't hide it anymore.
Through seeking help, I've been able to figure out why I self-harm and learned ways to avoid patterns of that behaviour. People talk about recovery as if it is a status or a destination, whilst I see it as more of an ongoing process. I draw a parallel between self-harm and addiction; they are behaviours you rely on, they are short-term fixes that eventually require more, they are considered taboo.
As with any addiction it can be hard to manage, but it is easier if you talk. I realised that I would struggle to recover without talking. The other important lesson I learnt was that through talking openly you promote understanding, encourage others to seek help, and challenge misconceptions.
It's not easy when the topic is rife with stigma and you might feel like you don't deserve help or happiness, but being open is the first step in the right direction. Not only will it help you, but also it can encourage others to find support, empower them to share their stories, and challenge societal misconceptions about self-harm.
Let's tackle the biggest misconception first: attention seeking.
I have never known anyone self-harm for attention. I personally would go to great measures to hide any evidence of my self-harming behaviour. I was riddled with shame, guilt and a fear of how people would react.
Obviously everyone's experience is different, but self-harm is very rarely an attention-seeking behaviour. Self-harm should always be taken seriously, regardless of what you interpret the reasons behind it to be.
The other big misconception is that self-harm is suicidal ideation, or a precursor for suicide. Whilst many people who complete suicide have previously self-harmed, the two are very different . Self-harm does not directly equate with suicide. It doesn't even necessarily signify mental illness. The reasons for self-harm are complex and multifarious. Commonly it acts as a form of release or a way of coping with feelings and situations. It can turn hidden distress into something tangible, treatable, visible - making it easier to deal with.
Fortunately for me, my family and friends were supportive and encouraged me to seek help. I've heard people argue that if the injury is self-inflicted, then you are not deserving of help. This is a statement sometimes applied to other actions that could be seen as more 'socially acceptable' forms of self harm - drinking and smoking. However this behaviour is complicated - it is not something you should be berated for and support should never be withheld. Doing so both reinforces negative stereotypes around self-harm and tells the sufferer that they are not worthy of recovery.
I hope that sharing my journey will put to bed misconceptions around self-harm, and underline that recovery is possible. With the right support and tools, everyone can make that journey.
If you want to hear more about Grace's story and the latest research on self-harm, listen to the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families' expert podcast here, featuring Grace, Professor Peter Fonagy, and BBC Radio 4 presenter Claudia Hammond.
Useful websites and helplines:
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)