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An Open Letter to Penny Smith and Jim Davis on Mental Illness and Stigma

24/02/2014 11:45 GMT | Updated 24/04/2014 10:59 BST

Dear Penny and Jim,

I'm writing to thank you for having me on The Breakfast Show on BBC London last Thursday. I don't know if you remember me; you were running a news piece about the tragic death of Tallulah Wilson, a girl who suffered from an eating disorder and subsequently killed herself in late 2012. The story primarily revolved around her participation in what you called 'pro-self-harm' sites, and you were interviewing me about my experiences with self-harm.

Your producers woke me up at 6.45 in the morning and asked me whether I'd like to be on the radio at 7.15, talking about the same thing I'd been on the news chatting about the previous day - I'd done an interview with your TV counterparts about the same subject, and part of it had made it on to the lunchtime and evening news, as well as your website. They'd originally contacted me because they'd read an article I wrote for my student newspaper about my experiences with self-harm; they knew all of the things I had to say about it and they were wonderful and sensitive and made sure that I was okay with everything before, during and after filming.

I'm not normally up at 6.45 in the morning, but it's not every day as a student that you get to be on a major regional radio station, so I of course said yes to your request, and at 7.30 I got a call back and you put me on.

You asked me why I self-harmed; I replied that I did it was because I had depression, and it was a way of achieving some release from the mental pain I was feeling. You asked whether the internet had any involvement in my self-harming, and I talked about the way in which online communities can provide a source of empathy and understanding for people struggling with mental illness, but that graphic images of people who've cut themselves weren't really necessary for these communities to work, and that there's a fine line between an empathetic, accepting community and one which can make it more difficult to recover. You inferred from what I said that I had 'looked at the images' and it made me feel that I wasn't alone. (I hadn't).

You asked me how I managed to move past self harm. I said that it was a long road which is full of pitfalls, and one on which I am still travelling. I started to talk about how self-harm is a symptom of a wider problem - for me, depression - which people use to get away from the things that they are feeling, and which isn't necessarily intrinsically harmful. I was going to move on to talk about the way it can become a habit which is difficult to get out of, how it can be difficult to judge where the line is between support and glorification when it comes to online communities, and to make the distinction being self-harming behaviours and suicidal behaviours - primarily because all the news reports about Tallulah Wilson have framed it as if her self-harm as having directly led to her suicide. Unfortunately, before I could talk about those things, you cut me off. You said 'We can't condone it either, can we Tim? I realise your perspective on it is a very personal one and I'm sorry that we have to leave it there, but thank you so much. Tim Squirrell there, a former self-harmer who's now a Cambridge University student.'

It was interesting that you framed it that way - a former self-harmer, now at Cambridge. It made me sound like a story in a local newspaper: 'I used to self-harm, but now I'm a Cambridge student!' Of course, the self-harm (and indeed the depression) came after I got to Cambridge, and indeed the environment here is one of the reasons that many of us, including myself, are more likely to develop depression and other forms of mental illness. Surprisingly, a large number of us manage to both be chronically ill and keep up with our degree at the same time. Of course, some people don't manage, and they're told to go away for a year and come back when they're better, but the university doesn't really like to talk about that.

Anyway, that was it. You moved on and I hung up. I'll admit I was a little upset that you cut me off like that, and I almost slept through the rest of the day - not because I'm a lazy student, you understand, but because an inability to get out of bed is one of the major ways in which my depression manifests - until my girlfriend managed to get me up, though it required a major effort on her part. I spent the rest of the day waiting for a call back from you, expecting you to check that I was okay or even to apologise and explain why you'd had to end the conversation prematurely. You haven't contacted me since.

It's funny, isn't it? You seemed extremely concerned to make sure that I didn't somehow cause hundreds of people to start hurting themselves by exposing them to a nuanced viewpoint on morning radio, but you weren't particularly bothered about the 'former self-harmer' you'd woken up and then cut off mid-sentence on air. If you'd bothered to ask, you'd know that I don't write as much about mental health anymore because I've found that spending a lot of time talking about it tends to make me feel more like my depression is a permanent part of my identity which I'd be a fraud to get rid of.

You'd also know that this is the latest in a long series of things I've done related to mental health, and how difficult it's been to get here. I started this time last year, when I came out as having depression in the same student newspaper and encouraged people to ask about it to try to dispel some stigma from the illness; dozens of people did. Later, I set up a mental health survey in Cambridge, looking at the experiences with illness and support of my peers here; the data weren't perfect, but it got 1750 responses, many of whom talked openly about their experiences. Then there was a piece I wrote for the Huffington Post on depression, and then finally the self-harm piece which the BBC picked up on. You'd know, then, that I'm not just talking from personal experience, that I wasn't just blindly unloading my emotions, and that I have a lot of experience and insight to offer into how depression works, and how it affects young people.

You didn't ask, but it's ok. I was, in the event, relatively ok.

I shouldn't really pick on you. I'm sure you were just concerned for your listeners, and there's probably some regulation from Ofcom which says you have to stop people like me from giving views on mental illness which don't consist of 'don't worry, it gets better, just get some professional help and it all goes away'.

You're not the only ones at fault. Most of the media is putting a large amount of pressure on Tumblr to restrict the ability of people to post images which condone self-harm on their website. Helen Goodman MP, the Shadow Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, told the BBC "The kind of images you can see would never be allowed in a film with a 12 certificate or before the watershed. This is not acceptable." Perhaps she should be more concerned about the fact that young people feel so isolated and miserable and are suffering so badly that the only way they feel they can find community and release is to cut themselves open, take pictures and post it on the web.

The problem with the approach you're taking is that people who are self-harming are not doing so just because it's fashionable; the urge to cut or burn or starve oneself is one which comes from the deepest kind of sadness and emotional turmoil. When you get better, those urges start to go away. If you feel so utterly lonely and marginalised and isolated that taking a razor blade, cutting your arm open and watching it bleed is the only way for you to feel some kind of release, how do you think you're going to feel when the people in charge, the people who are supposed to care about you and look after you until you're of an age where you can look after yourself, simply say that it's unacceptable that you should be exposed to graphic images online? You're going to laugh bitterly as you're reminded that nobody cares about you, that the world is a horrible place and nobody else could ever understand what you're going through, except maybe the friends you've made online who seem to be able to empathise with what you're feeling - but now you want to take them away as well, because any community in which people talk about self-harm in a way that isn't utterly clinical or negative must be glorifying it.

Self-harm is not the simple issue you want it to be. It's not a simple matter of attention seeking and learned behaviours. People self-harm for a huge variety of reasons: to take control of a life that feels completely chaotic; to punish themselves because they hate themselves; to find some release; just to feel something because they've been on antidepressants for three months and they can't feel anything anymore and the drugs aren't helping; and yes, sometimes for attention, because they feel trapped and need help and can't think of any other way to ask for it. When you boil a vast array of behaviours down to 'this is a bad thing', you further isolate some of the most vulnerable people in society.

We live in a paradigm where to talk about self-harm in anything other than a completely condemnatory fashion is to glorify and condone it. Not only does this ignore the fact that self-harm is one of a constellation of symptoms which stem from a much deeper hurt, it also makes the people who practise it feel even worse, because they're told that this thing that they are doing, that they sometimes have an uncontrollable urge to do, is wrong and dangerous and never something they should do under any circumstances. They're also bombarded with stories like this one, stories which say 'she self-harmed and killed herself', like self-harm and suicide are behaviours which can be conflated. They're not. They are utterly different. People use self-harm as a coping mechanism, to allow them to function in a world where they feel completely alienated; in many cases it's exactly what prevents them from thinking or acting on suicidal thoughts.

Mental illness is a terrible thing to have to suffer through, and it is completely regrettable that so many of us have spent so much of our lives feeling the worst kind of sadness for seemingly no reason at all, and that in order to continue to live in this world we feel that the only thing we can do is to harm ourselves for whatever reason. What is much, much worse than this is to further isolate people like me and so very many others by taking such a narrow-minded view of the ways in which we suffer, and the ways we try to find to cope with that suffering.

Thank you for having me on your show.

Best wishes,

Tim Squirrell