4 Myths About Self-Harm We Urgently Need to Unlearn

Person standing in front a mirror looking down

Person standing in front a mirror looking down

(Content Warning: self-harm, suicide)

Self-harm is something I learned about at a young age.

In my schooling system, we had a subject – patronizingly called “Life Orientation” – where we discussed issues like sex, peer pressure, health, drugs, and relationships.

Something that was covered in Life Orientation was the topic of self-harm.

When I learned about self-harm in school, I had already engaged in it. But it was taught to us in such a way that it othered those who self-harmed.

In a misguided attempt to discourage us from self-harming, our teacher spoke about how stupid it was to self-harm. That it didn’t solve any problems. That it was done to seek attention. That it only ever includes cutting.

We weren’t taught how to seek help. In fact, with our teacher shaming people who self-harmed, I felt too ashamed to seek help.

My self-harming tendencies continued for years after that partially because I internalized so many harmful myths about it. I didn’t believe I was being overdramatic or seeking attention, but I knew some people would think I was.

If we want to create a society where people who self-harm feel safe and able to find help, we need to debunk those myths.

Myth #1: Self-Harm Is a Failed Suicide Attempt

A very common myth is that self-harm is a suicide attempt. This isn’t true.

It’s possible to have suicidal ideations and self-harm, and self-harm is sometimes a predictor of suicide.

But most of the time, “self-harm” refers to inflicting injury without actually intending to kill yourself. Personally, I used to self-harm when I felt myself dissociating because of PTSD, or when my emotions were too overwhelming and I needed some kind of outlet.

A clinical term relating to self-harm is non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI), which is categorized separately from suicide attempts because the intention is different.

People who engage in self-harm often do so to distract themselves from emotional and psychological pain, or to help themselves feel something when they’re feeling numb.

Being suicidal isn’t anything to be ashamed of, but it shouldn’t be conflated with the urge to self-harm.

We need to be able to address the pain that people who self-harm are experiencing, rather than assuming they have the same needs as someone who is suicidal.

Myth #2: Self-Harm Is Done for Attention

Whenever mental health issues are thrust into public spaces by sufferers, we’re told we’re seeking attention.

When we tweet about mental health, we’re told we’re seeking attention.

When we write about it, we’re told we’re seeking attention.

When we discuss it in public, we’re told we’re seeking attention.

When there’s physical evidence that we’ve been self-harming, we’re told we’re seeking attention.

Of course, this all feeds into mental health stigma.

We’re taught by society that mental health is something we need to be ashamed of, something that’s inappropriate to discuss with others.

Shaming people as attention-seeking when they discuss mental health is an integral tool of ableism.

As professionals and experts have told us time and time again, self-harm isn’t about attention. Many people who self-harm feel ashamed of it and don’t want to discuss it. When self-harm produces physical evidence, such as scarring, many of us try to cover it up.

I hid my struggles with mental health for years and years partially because I didn’t know how to ask for help.

For me, self-harm was a way of making my mental illness visible in a world that continually erased my struggles. I didn’t want it to be visible to anyone in particular, but I wanted it to be visible.

My scars felt like an acknowledgement that I wasn’t okay. I shouldn’t have had to resort to self-harm in order to acknowledge that I was struggling, but I did. Maybe, in a way, I was subconsciously looking for some validation from the world – validation that I wasn’t okay, validation that I needed help.

And you know what? I deserved that validation. We all do.

When I talk about how suicide and self-harm isn’t about seeking attention, I like to remind the audience of one thing: Looking for attention isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Many people need attention in order to feel loved. This doesn’t mean it’s okay to manipulate and emotionally blackmail people into giving you attention – not at all.

But it does mean that attention needs to be paid. We need to pay attention to the mental health of those who self-harm.

Instead of looking at this behavior as cries for attention, we should look at it as an indicator that someone needs help.

Myth #3: Self-Harm Always Takes the Form of ‘Cutting’

When you think of self-harm, what image pops into your head?

Many people think about someone cutting into their skin – especially on their wrists.

This is a common way to practice self-harm, yes – but there are many other ways in which it’s done. It’s important to be aware of these practices so that we can recognize it as self-harm when we see it.

Other methods include burning, carving words or symbols into the skin, excessive scratching or picking, hair-pulling, and punching oneself. It could also include hitting oneself with objects. This could include banging your head against a wall or hitting a door.

In a much broader sense, certain kinds of self-destructive behaviors can be considered self-harm – not just physical forms of self-injury. This could include excessive drinking, substance abuse, overworking, or engaging in other risky behaviors.

There are many possible reasons for this behavior. For many of us, it’s exactly the same reason why we self-injure.

When I stopped cutting, I was incredibly proud of myself – and for a good reason. But I started overworking to the point where I got very little sleep.

Over time, I began to realize that I had simply replaced one form of self-harm with another. Because I associated self-harm with cutting, it took me a while to accept the fact that I needed help.

It’s important that we look at self-harm and self-destructive behaviors with an open mind.

Myth #4: Only Teenagers Self-Harm

The mainstream media often represents people who self-harm as teenagers. And yeah, studies indicate that teenagers are more likely to engage in self-harm.

But it’s important to bear in mind that there are, indeed, adults who self-harm, and we shouldn’t erase them from the narrative. This might mean they don’t recognize their behavior as self-harm. It might also lead them to feel too ashamed to seek help.

This myth also feeds into a lot of stereotypes about teenagers and mental illness.

Often, when teenagers ask for help, they’re dismissed as being over-dramatic and attention-seeking. They’re often told that they’ll “grow out” of their mental difficulties.

Similarly, self-harm is seen as over-dramatic and attention-seeking. People are sometimes told that they’ll simply grow out of self-harm, a stereotype which is substantiated by the fact that adults who self-harm aren’t represented.

The stereotypes about mental health and teenagers go along with myths about self-harm. And to forge a better future for mentally ill people of all ages, we need to fight those stereotypes and unlearn those myths.

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Learning more about mental health issues is a valuable tool in fighting stigma. For that reason, it’s incredibly important that we unlearn harmful myths about issues like self-harm.

By spreading awareness, instead of lies, we can equip people to help themselves and others.

Sian Ferguson is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and a full-time freelance writer based in South Africa. Her work has been featured on various sites, including Ravishly, MassRoots, Matador Network, and more. She’s particularly interested in writing about queer issues, misogyny, healing after sexual trauma and rape culture. You can follow her on Twitter @sianfergs and read her articles here.