Trigger Warning: This blog post contains information about self-harm
This post was written by Zac Thraves, writer, performer and founder of The SHP Project. He is on a mission to change how we perceive and talk about Mental Health. In his book, The Self-Harming Pacifist, Zac shares how he found his way toward a calmer way of living in the aftermath of self-harm.
In this post:
- Self-Harm: Stereotypes & Misconceptions
- Mental Health & Self-Harm Through a New Lens
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Self-Harm: Stereotypes & Misconceptions
When I first self-harmed I did it in private.
I locked myself in the bathroom and, using a kitchen knife, slid the blade along my arm.
Was what I was doing a cry for help?
That is one stereotype of self-harmers and my answer is no, my wife at the time was sitting in the living room watching television.
Was what I was doing attention-seeking?
Another stereotype. No, I was alone, I did the deed, I pulled the sleeve down on my jumper, washed the knife and placed it back in the drawer.
Did I feel better after doing it?
Yes, if only for a short time.
Self-harm & Motif
The act of self-harm is none of the stereotypes we are led to believe. It is an outlet for an emotional build-up and the pain is a way of relieving the pain within the mind.
I’m not saying it is a good way to help emotions, but rather than trying to hide the idea that it is a coping mechanism, why don’t we talk about the idea that it is a coping mechanism.
The Samaritans, for all the wonderful work they do, I feel are wrong with their media guidance to not report self-harm as a coping strategy, I think
that this completely misses the point of why we self-harm.
Self-Harm & Men
Men and emotions are two things that, we are taught from a very early age, do not go together. This stereotype begins from birth when boys are instructed and influenced not to cry.
Emotions are then a taboo subject when faced with school, with any crying boy being labelled as a “cry-baby” or a “mummy’s-boy”. Both terms are a form of abusive behaviour and bullying, and both help to create an environment where boys turn into men who don’t talk about their emotions.
Let’s light-speed to adulthood, and we have working environments of men who talk about nothing deep. All talk is superficial, about sex, football, games or just being macho.
This is depicted in the media, and their argument is that it reflects society, but how refreshing would it be to see the pilots in Top Gun talk openly about how they were feeling. Men do not talk, are not encouraged to talk, and therefore will not talk, about their emotions.
However, initiatives are in place, a notable one being set up by Heads Together, who have enlisted the help of Prince William and the FA to get men to talk about emotions as much as they talk about
Now, I admit that men talking about football is in itself a stereotype. I know plenty of men who dislike football but would be happy to talk about movies or books. But this is a positive step, and perhaps in many ways men who like to read and watch films are not the audience of men who are finding it hard to open up about their emotions.
What is required though is not just a change from the men, but also from the women who they are in a relationship with and the work environments that they are in. On a personal note, when I told my manager that I was suffering from depression, a move that took me years to get to make, his first response was a blank face of uncertainty and then a sigh over all the paperwork it would cause.
Self Harm & The Younger Generation
You could be mistaken for thinking that mental health and anxiety are the domain of the young.
However, this is another stereotype the media use, the subconscious message perhaps being that when you are young you are naïve and prone to emotions but when mature you are far more capable of dealing with life. How wrong that assumption is, and dangerous.
According to the Office of National Statistics, the highest group for suicide is men between 49 and 54 years of age. The youth do have their issues too, some of which have already been highlighted. Couple that with media depictions of self-harm and suicide and you could be forgiven for thinking that to do such an act will make you some kind of celebrity martyr.
When Caroline Flack was found dead by suicide the media pounced on the story. It sold papers in bucketloads, and they needed that feed to keep on giving. Her death was sensationalised; the language used was dramatic; the idea of suicide was glamorised.
The fact that the blame for her death lay partly at the press door seemed to pass them by, a fact that was easy to omit. The press is our source for opinion and perspectives, and it would seem that the one being offered on behalf of Ms Flack was not the entire truth.
For a body that is supposed to seek the truth in the cracks, their pursuit of a story, hounding of family, and sensationalist depiction of the story into tragedy, is another shameful addition to the stereotypes we are faced with.
Social media also plays a role in this. The lack of regulations or reforms, as the companies hide behind the model of freedom of expression, means that younger people, and girls, in particular, are subject to awful online bullying.
Take the case of Rebecca Hardwick, who faced terrible bullying online from her peers at school. She was forced into isolation and her fear, and her inability to find any other way out led to her jumping to her death at the age of 12.
The media reported this tragedy with empathy and offered glimpses of the grief her mother was going through. However, the blame was placed firmly at the doorsteps of the bullies and the school, neglecting to include a social media platform that can regulate and delete dangerous and violent content.
Mental Health & Self-Harm Through a New Lens
Stereotypes are there to be broken. Our society is changing, and the pandemic has seen that. Our behaviours are altering and our ideals and values have moved on. The old society of masculinity, non-emotion and just getting on with it, is broken. It almost no longer exists but for some who cling on to its dying system.
That we have men in positions of influence who are asking others to talk, to be open about their feelings, and to acknowledge when they are hurt, can make things better. That we have independent voices in the media challenging the status quo, the old guard of the press, and asking them to change their language, can offer us a society that accepts that we are emotional and that we feel pain.
When I last self-harmed, I was in the early stages of a relationship that was changing my life. I now feel I have the freedom to talk without judgement or shame, or misunderstanding. I feel free to explore my emotions and while I am not cured of depression, and while those thoughts enter my mind from time to time, they no longer drive me. I am in control, and that is a place I wish for everyone to feel they are in.
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