One in four young women has self-harmed at one point, but despite this, it remains an experience which is deeply stigmatised. So, what can we do to improve this and ensure everyone affected feels comfortable accessing support? Stylist investigates.
Warning: this article contains a discussion of self-harm that some readers may find triggering.
The mental health conversation has come a long way over the last couple of years. In some ways, talking about your mental health has been normalised. Nowadays, it’s normal to see influencers talking about feeling anxious or to scroll past Instagram posts detailing coping methods for depression.
However, this level of acceptance and openness isn’t commonplace across all areas of mental health – and the conversation still has a long way to go.
This is particularly true when it comes to the growing problem of self-harm. Self-harm rates have doubled in England since 2000 (with rates among young women having tripled), and despite the fact that presentation to hospitals and GPs for self-harm dropped during the first lockdown, charities such as Samaritans have seen a rise in the number of people seeking support in this area.
All in all, it’s clear that self-harm remains a struggle being faced by a growing number of young women – but despite this, it’s an experience which remains deeply stigmatised.
This is something which Faye, 21, from East Sussex, knows all too well. She started self-harming when she was 12 years old, as a result of pressures from school. Although she says she’d never been around self-harm growing up, she says it became something she did when she felt overwhelmed – a reality she never told her parents about, for fear of upsetting them.
For Faye, learning about positive coping mechanisms and talking to a Samaritans volunteer about how she was feeling has really helped, and she and her parents now feel able to talk about what happened. However, she wishes there wasn’t so much stigma and shame attached to it in the first place.
“[Self-harm is] a lot more common than people think it is. There isn’t enough really known about it. It’s one of those things people are made to feel that they need to hide; really, it should be focused on more because more people might then understand why people do it. Some people just don’t get why people do it – sometimes you can’t explain ‘oh this is why’.”
Faye continues: “I wish there wasn’t a stigma around it, or that people felt ashamed about doing it – if you’re self-harming you’re obviously not in the best place, so why put them down further when they’re already feeling quite low?”
Elysia, 30, from Derbyshire, has also struggled with the stigma and shame surrounding self-harm. She started self-harming throughout her teens and early 20s because of the emotional pain caused by unresolved trauma from her childhood. As she grew older, she says she felt the need to hide her scars, for fear of being judged.
“When overwhelmed with intense emotion I would self-harm out of desperation,” she tells Stylist. “The physical pain I caused to myself on the outside was a distraction from the mental anguish and pain I was feeling on the inside.”
“As I got older, I became increasingly conscious of the physical scars caused from self-harm. I’d try to hide them so that they weren’t visible as I was worried about being judged.”
Although, like Faye, Elysia was eventually able to seek help thanks to support provided by Samaritans and channelling her energy into creative pursuits such as writing, it’s clear that the lack of awareness surrounding self-harm and the experiences of those who struggle with it remains a real barrier to people seeking support. So, why aren’t we talking about it?
According to Mette Isaksen, senior research manager at Samaritans, the disparity between the number of young women struggling and society’s willingness to talk about self-harm comes from the amount of stigma which still surrounds it.
“There is a lot of stigma around self-harm,” she tells Stylist. “People can feel really apologetic and embarrassed, which can add to their distress and make them less likely to speak about it. Some people may have had bad past experiences of talking about self-harm, which might make it harder to open up in future.”
However, just because self-harm remains a stigmatised subject, doesn’t mean there isn’t room for us all to make a change – particularly if you know someone who is struggling at the moment. Indeed, if you have a friend or family member who self-harms, one of the best things you can do is simply offer your non-judgmental support.
“We can all help reduce stigma by offering non-judgmental support if someone we know self-harms,” Isaksen says. “Just letting them know you care and that they don’t need to apologise, can make it easier to talk about.
“It can be hard to know what to say when someone you care for is hurting themselves. The most important thing is to be there for them, and to listen. Don’t be scared to make mistakes; the thing people normally need the most initially is emotional connection. You can read more tips on how to support someone who might be self-harming on our website.”
Although it’s clear that we still have a long way to go when it comes to raising awareness of self-harm and the importance of seeking help, there’s also hope that, through the work of organisations such as Samaritans, the stories of individuals such as Faye and Elysia and the willingness of people to support their loved ones, we’ll reach a place where self-harm is just as destigmatised as other areas of mental health.
Because only by doing this, can we ensure that every individual feels comfortable accessing the support they need.
If you or someone you know is self-harming, seeking help is an important first step.
If you’ve self-harmed, you should start by talking to your GP. Samaritans also encourage anyone who is struggling to consider talking to a friend or family member you trust.
For confidential support, you can also go to Samaritans – their team of volunteers provide emotional support to those who self-harm or are in emotional distress every day. You can call their helpline for free on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to get started.
You can also visit Samaritans.org for more information or support.