Yesterday I was in a school talking about self esteem and the issues surrounding it, from everything as simple as social withdrawal all the way to issues like self harm, suicide and eating disorders. I have talked at many places including schools, colleges, universities, public events and every other place for that matter. I have educated professionals about barriers men face in healthcare and to date none of that has phased me.
I was quite taken aback today by possibly one of the younger groups I have ever worked with who were Year Eights (around 13 years old). There was some really good comments from the groups, who got involved in debates around body confidence, in everything from airbrushing, media exposure, the conversations we have and the way we have them all the way to the pressure we sometimes feel from people to succeed and how if we don't it can knock our confidence. About half way through the day one comment came up from a rather brash Year 8 that reminded me why there are people that do this, why Gossip School exists and why as a group of people we are constantly trying to change the image of mental health and the issues surrounding self esteem.
Throughout the day I asked the groups what they thought the negative effects of a low self esteem could be, we had the good answers of social isolation and how it can be a contributing factor to depression, self harm and eating disorders and then out of the blue this voice came out with:
"Self Harm, but no-one here worries about that, only stupid people do it"
I was kind of shocked, but at the same time rather glad a comment like that came up, as this is the stigma that we are dealing with when we work with young people and older people alike. We tell people they need to talk about their issues openly with people they trust, but I know exactly why people don't and that is a result of a lack of understanding of the issue itself, the misconception that only sad, lonely people self harm for instance, when this could not be further from the truth.
I know high flying professionals, incredibly successful people who have done it, not exactly your average loser. I can think of countless celebrities, including the likes of Angelina Jolie, who have struggled with self harm in the past, again not the stereotype that is so commonly portrayed.
The reality is that it is just another coping mechanism, which may be maladaptive but none the less people are using it to cope with deeper problems. It is not a suicide attempt, it is not attention seeking and it is not something confined to younger people. It is also not confined to a single group of people, it is not just your average 'goth' (that word came up too!) but people you would never suspect, and like anything else it is one of those things that can affect anyone, any age, anywhere.
We hand these misconceptions down from generation to generation in the way we talk about these afflictions, the way we portray them and it is shocking to see that it is such a destructive behaviour, yet it is so normalised in today's society, seen as something young people just do as part of growing up.
Being that it is self harm awareness day today it became too relevant not to write about, just another experience of how we are failing our society by making people feel they can't talk about these issues, or even worse, boxing people into the 'loser' box instead of reaching out and seeking help for what can be a vicious circle of destructive behaviour.
We should be working with our young people to bring up a generation that understands the complexities of these issues and can have these difficult discussions openly, which will undoubtedly prevent many cases from emerging, they shouldn't have to suffer at the hands of stigma like my one did.