Self-harm and suicide are somewhat shrouded in mystery. Many consider them a teenage fad, a call for attention, or, worse, an act of selfishness. On the other hand, research suggests that self-injury and suicide often go hand in hand with trauma, which is a serious matter. And yet, the phenomenon is not fully understood. Is it because we choose to suffer in silence? (Note: This post contains a trigger warning.)
Stigma of Self-Harm
Self-injury, by its very nature, seems inherently connected to suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Yet while suicide necessarily involves causing yourself harm, there is a subtle but important difference between self-harm vs. self-destruction.
Many self-harm stereotypes are linked to immaturity. The common misconception is that if you self-injure, you must be a teenager or going through a phase. Nothing could be further from the truth, and we mustn't forget that self-harm is also prevalent in older adults.
Like mental health in general, self-harm is surrounded by harmful stereotypes that perpetuate the feelings of fear, guilt, and shame. We can only bust these self-harm myths by educating one another and by spreading awareness about self-injury.
It's understandable to assume that people who self-harm do so because they want to end their own lives. This is understandable but wrong. While suicide attempts do often involve an act of potentially-lethal self-injury, those of us who struggle with nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI) are not looking to die. If anything, what we are really trying to do is survive.
That someone who self-harms must be unhappy is an easy assumption to make, but the truth is more complicated than that. While self-harm and mood disorders do often go hand-in-hand, self-harm is not intrinsically linked to mood. Not everyone who is unhappy self-harms, after all, and not everyone who self-harms does so exclusively when they are suffering. So why do people self-harm even when they're happy—or at least appear to be so?
Self-harm stigma is a bit different than the stigma surrounding, say, something like schizophrenia. Whereas there is no overarching societal perception of schizophrenia as an embarrassing condition to have, there is certainly an element of embarrassment that is created by self-harm stigma.
How can there be invisible self-harm? Self-harm is assumed to be apparent to the eye — a reasonable assumption given that self-harm is a physical act performed on the physical body and that self-harm is used at times as a way of making invisible, psychic pain visible and concrete. But not all self-harm can be seen. Invisible self-harm is just as dangerous as visible self-injuries.
You see this stigma of self-harm for attention played out in TV shows, movies, and often even in real life: A person engages in self-harm. This behavior is noticed by another person, either because the self-harmer has confessed or wears visible scars. People debate among themselves about whether this self-harming behavior warrants confronting the person and/or seeking professional help for the person. Then, as if on cue, someone suggests they forget about the whole thing, and says something along the lines of, "She's just self-harming for the attention."
People want to know why self-injury is so prevalent in borderline personality disorder (BPD). According to the National Institute of Mental Health's website, borderline personality disorder consists of unstable moods, behaviors, and relationships, with trouble regulating emotions and thoughts while exhibiting impulsive behavior. Another characteristic of BPD is self-injurious behaviors and increased suicidality. Cutting and other forms of self-harm are so prevalent in borderline that they seem to have become indicators of it. Of course, not everyone who self-harms has BPD, and not everyone with the disorder self-harms. However, self-harm is widely prevalent in BPD. And I was given the borderline diagnosis probably because I cut myself.