The answer to this isn’t completely conclusive. It all depends on how societies see mental health and self-harm.
RightLines is a service that aims to reach and work with young people aged between 13 and 35 who may self-harm. We also aim to promote understanding, strength, and change; and offer a non-judgemental space for individuals to freely explore their feelings and situations. We work on a remote basis and run a daily webchat service from 4–8pm, a messaging channel as well as the 24/7 distraction service TAV who is our friendly elephant with suggestions and coping strategies to hand. We also provide additional support services which include registered social workers, counsellors, therapists, nationally qualified youth workers, and life coaches.
What is self-harm?
Self-harm is a coping mechanism where a person may self-inflict harm or injury as a way to deal with difficult emotions.
Types of self-harm
Self-harm can occur in many forms such as:
- Chronic working/insomnia
- Inserting sharp objects into the skin
- Banging/punching oneself
- Overuse of sport
- Sexual risk-taking
- Substance misuse
Why do people self-harm
The reasons for self-harm depend on one or more factors including: social, financial, emotional, physical and transitional influences. This includes personal and professional relationships as well as having a lack of choice/freedom.
Theoretical ideas of self-harm
In the 1960s, Albert Bandura introduced the social learning theory that emphasised behaviours being learnt by observing and imitating. This theory suggests the individual has learned self-harming eases their struggles and often offers a reliable sense of control they would perhaps not get elsewhere.
On the other hand, Sigmund Freud developed the psychodynamic theory that explains people who self-harm have had unhappy past experiences (this could be due to historical or current sexual/emotional abuse) which has never been resolved or dealt with.
Cultural influences that promote self-harm
While reading an article, I came across a reading about Aboriginal societies from Australia who see cutting as a means to express grief. I found this interesting as self-harm tends to be performed in secrecy and seeing this as a socially acceptable way to let your unwanted feelings go show it’s okay not to be okay. However there have ongoing debates about whether that would set a good example to others in the current and future generations.
I also read about a purification ritual called the American Indian Sun Dance that usually takes place in the summer among Lakota and Plains culture. The aim behind performing this ritual is to sacrifice something which is within human control and people use tattoos and piercings to reflect signs of gratitude and gratefulness for all their good fortunes as well as signifying the power of the sun.
The role of media
The media can be a powerful tool in shaping people’s thoughts and behaviours. There could be the pressure to look good and imitate the way others look in order to be attractive and sociable in Western society, causing low self-worth.
While working with our clients, we as a team found a large proportion of people generally struggle to communicate their feelings to their family and friends due to:
- Fears of being judged
- Causing shame and embarrassment
- Self-blaming for not being good enough to deal with it in the first place.
A common theme that leads to the suppressed feelings include having limited or no choice that moves away from the status quo. Therefore, self-harm is usually performed in the individual’s personal space as a means to self-punish, gain some control and gain short-term relief.
What we can take away from this is that some cultures see self-harm as a good thing and some as the opposite. Also there can be the added pressures to perform well and maintain expectations of others, causing potential feelings of being trapped and out of control.
These may be situations that will take time to change or offer little change due to the pre-conditioned notions, but what we as practitioners can do, is to offer empathy and see things from the individual’s frame of reference to help them feel understood and communicate their pain.
Taslim Hassan works for RightLines.