I've spent years explaining my self-harm scars to people in hopes that I'm doing my part for mental health awareness but sometimes, being so open about my mental health isn't always liberating and I often find myself in uncomfortable situations. Becoming a mental health advocate doesn't come with a step-by-step guidebook on how to manage difficult conversations - the truth is, I never actually feel prepared to answer questions regarding my self-harm scars. Self-harm is a sensitive subject and something not everyone is open to understanding so I wanted to address some common misconceptions to bring awareness to a topic that holds much stigma and discrimination.
1. "Self-harm is just cutting"
Anything that is deliberately hurting oneself is a form of self-harm - although "cutting" is the most popular form of self-harm, it isn't the only way people chose to cope with the pain of strong emotions. Self-harm abuse can vary from burning, hitting, punching and picking oneself. Other forms of self-harm can include excessive drinking and drug addictions.
2. "Attention Seeking"
Although some people self-harm for attention, this shouldn't be used as a reason why someone shouldn't receive help. Self-harm is often used to cope with the pain of strong emotions, intense pressure, or upsetting relationships and people who self-harm are usually dealing with feelings that seem too difficult to bear or bad situations they think can't change. People who self-harm usually use this method as a cry for help and often, when someone goes to the extreme of purposely hurting themselves, it is clear they are in distress and require medical attention.
3. "You only cut your on your wrists"
Most frequently, the arms, legs and front of the torso are the targets of self-harm, but any area of the body may be used for self-harm. Due to mainstream media, there is a big misconception that people who cut themselves, only cut their wrists but a majority of people who self-harm will cut in places in less noticeable, for instance, their legs, stomachs and chest, etc.
4. "It's just a phase"
Self-harm is a serious addiction that often starts in teenage years and gets carried through into adulthood. The misconception that self-harm is just a phase can make sufferers feel patronised and belittled and as if their addiction is something deemed unserious. With attitudes like "they'll get over it", ones mental state is not only being looked at from a detrimental stance but not taken seriously enough for the sufferer to receive the support they require.
5. "Failed suicide attempt"
Rather than attempting to end their lives, people who self-harm are often surviving and managing intolerable and emotionally painful lives. Self-harm can be used as a suicide attempt but mostly used as a coping mechanism to release from emotional pain. Reasons behind why someone may choose to self-harm are all very personal to the individual but it is important to remember, it is not always a suicide attempt and that they may just want to stop their negative feelings at that moment in time.
Self-harm is something that can't be fully understood without personal experience, the more open we become talking about self-harm, the easier it becomes to break down barriers and talk about a subject that people hide away from. Self-harm is too big a problem to ignore or to deal with alone.
Here are some useful websites:
Harmless - harmless.org.uk
User-led organisation for people who self-harm, and their friends and families.
Lifesigns - lifesigns.org.uk
User-led self-harm guidance and support network.
The Mix - themix.org.uk
Helpline and online support for people aged 16-25.
National Self Harm Network (NSHN) - nshn.co.uk
Survivor-led closely monitored forum for people who self-harm, and their friends and families.