Trigger Warning: Contains references to depression, anxiety and self-harm

Today is Self Injury Awareness Day. I’ve spent the last week writing up a blog post about it; going into my history and my thoughts. This is not that blog post.

Talking about mental illness is very hard. I am very privileged to have the social position and ability to do so. Over the course of a year, a quarter of us will have at least one form of mental illness. The problem is that society still views it as a weakness, that the sufferer is ‘making it up’ or choosing not to get help.

I want to talk about self-harm specifically today. I believe that illnesses such as depression and anxiety are being talked about a lot more, but that self-harm is still swept under the rug. People think it just a problem for teenagers, that it is a form of attention-seeking that people grow out of and forget about. I want to help sweep away this misconception.

I have self-harmed since I was 15 and I am now in my early 30s. I have known many people who self-harm in various ways. The main commonality I have observed is that attention is the last thing self-harmers want. The reason we self-harm is control.

Having a mental illness means that you no longer have control over things that we take for granted. I suffer with depression and anxiety, therefore I have little control over my emotional responses sometimes. I do not behave in a way that is ‘typical’. The triggers for my depression are also not in my control; sometimes it is a reaction to an outside stress like work or bullying, sometimes it is for no reason at all. What self-harm gave me was a way to make an explicit choice about my suffering. It is a show of defiance; no matter how much you hurt me, I can always hurt myself more and so your hurt is easily dismissed. I choose to cut, you do not cut me.

It is easy to get drugs, but difficult to get help. There are not enough resources for therapy on the NHS and looking for help privately is expensive and leaves you open to conmen peddling their latest quackery. This is especially true for young people who fall through the gap between children and adult mental health services. I could get a new anti-depressant prescription tomorrow but I’d be waiting years for therapy. So now self-harm gives me something else, it gives me a way to cope with the mental illness. There is a catharsis and euphoria I feel when I do it and sometimes that’s the only way I can feel better.

I do think wanting attention does come into play a little. It is much easier to show someone a scar than it is to explain what caused it. When I first started getting depressed, I found it really hard to explain to people. When spoken aloud, it sounded very petty and insignificant compared to the emotional reaction, especially to people who don’t have those problems. I once had to explain to a boss about why the phone ringing would trigger panic attacks so bad I was sent home. To me, the phone ringing meant head office were calling, and that they were calling about something I’d done wrong and so I’d be fired, homeless and then dead. This mental leap happens so fast that my mind would just go ‘phone == death’. He didn’t understand.

I don’t understand why we look down on our children for wanting attention. If someone is crying for help drowning we don’t leave them in the sea. Dismissing your child when they self-harm just means that they will hide it better and that they will lose any trust they had in you. It means that even if they grow out of the self-harming behaviour, they won’t grow out of their distrust for people who are supposed to support them. They will look to other self-harmers for support and understanding, and while this can be done well, it can lead down a self-destructive spiral.

Talking about mental illness needs to get easier. I know that it is difficult to understand if you are not a sufferer. Websites like Mind are great information resources if you want to find out more about an illness or are looking for support. Getting help is hard, but we are not alone.