understanding self-harm

“Study Shows Nearly Half Of Eating Disorder Patients Self-Harm”

this is the title of an article in medicalnews. it made me stop and think because it shows a certain line of thinking about what constitutes self-harm.

in mental health circles, “self harm” is polite code for people who cut themselves, or who engage in similar practices such as self-bruising, burning, etc.

my first question is, why is it necessary to call it self-harm? why not say out loud what it is? not naming something is just another way of shaming.

self-harming of any kind is always connected to shame and secrecy. often shame and secrecy is part and parcel of the trauma that brings on the urge to hurt oneself. therefore it doesn’t really make sense to shroud the activity in the taboo of vague words. often, bringing the self-harming activity out in the open already brings at least some relief.

i propose that rather than making the words “self harm” some kind of code phrase, why not just look at what these words stand for in ordinary language. (and, please, my philosopher friends, if you have a conniption at the term “ordinary language“, hold your horses for just a moment and save them for your comments).

when we look at the words “self harm” from that perspective, it becomes clear that we all engage in it to some degree or another. people who consistently work 100-hour weeks self harm. people who consistently drink too much self-harm. people who smoke even though three of their relatives died of lung cancer self harm. people who sabotage themselves by consistently underearning self-harm.

it seems to be a human trait – one of the ones that some of us work diligently at eradicating. but many just keep on trucking with these self-harming behaviours.

some forms of self-harm are more sanctioned by society than others. this is where shame and secrecy come in (i often think that people who feel the urge to do this may be just as tragically attracted to the shame and secrecy as to the relief that comes through self harming).

one of the things that has always intrigued me is that, say, someone who cuts herself once or twice a month is considered much more mentally unstable than someone who goes to kentucky fried chicken three times a week. bottom line, the latter person is harming himself more than the former.

this is why the headline seems a little odd to me. “nearly half of all people who have eating disorders self harm”. well – yes! they hurt themselves with eating too much or too little food. that’s probably a more significant issue than the self harm (and of course the over/undereating itself is in almost all cases again a sign of something more significant – but that’s material for another post).

isabella mori
counselling in vancouver

8 thoughts on “understanding self-harm

  1. Jeff

    I have to laugh at the term: “self harm” because it’s like candy~coating a deeper more dark psychological issue. If this article was slightly touching on the subject of those people who are bullemic, anorexic, etc…. then the term “self harm” seems to be what you would call those conditions when talking to grade school kids and not anywhere close to a “medical term”. In my opinion {and no, I am not a professional so this would be a personal opinion} this artical is candy~coating the word: Suicidal with: “Self Harm”. And why does it matter ? Well, it matters on the level of including the term: “Eatting disorder”. I believe that most people with eatting disorders are very unhappy with themselves to the point of doing something drastic about it. You don’t just starve yourself then say you are mentally ok. Clearly you aren’t. True, self harm is infact what these people are doing, but to call it that, aren’t we over-looking the deeper obvious ? These people do not wish to continue with their lives, or atleast, a serious cry for help.
    People who eat at any fast food restaurant, clearly are engaging in some level of “self harm”. $100 bucks says the person who wrote this article in medicalnews, had some sort of fast food, be it coffee and a bagel, doughnut, chicken salad {preparred at a fast food restaurant} etc… washed it down with a bottled water thinking they were “doing the right thing”. Then turn around and argue that, well, they don’t engage in self harm by way of an eatting disorder because they feel perfectly fine at the end of the day. Little do these people know that, the average adult has over 9oz of un-digested red meat in their intestines by the time they die. Was that red meat doing their body good ? My parents are the type to say that because they consume wine on a regular basis, that helps to un-clog their arteries of bad cholesterol. Although to some degree this is true, is that “Candy coating” the fact that they normally perform acts of “self harm”, but “remedy” their individual cases with the consumption of wine ?
    ..just some “food” for thought {pun intended)

  2. Dawn

    I would like to add to your comments – I agree that ‘self-harm’ is a rather vague description which encapsulates all of the issues you mention – and more.

    From a professional point of view, the only time intervention is required is when a behaviour becomes pathological ie socially unacceptable and detrimental to your health or someone else’s. What level of abusive behaviours people engage in – either collectively or alone is entirely up to them. Many people consume large quantities of alcohol (essentially a poison), or smoke cigarettes etc as socially accepted behaviours.

    For me then, ‘self harm’ offers the distinction from ‘harm imposed by others, or from the environment’ – and when applied to a patient the term would accompany the definition of the behaviour/s in question.

    I guess anything to excess is dangerous to our health, so why we engage in excessive behaviour that endangers our health is the question I would like answered.

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  5. MJ

    I’d like to add my option on a previous comment: “These people do not wish to continue with their lives, or atleast, a serious cry for help.”

    Self-harm is such a broad word and it’s impossible, in my option, to say that all people who self-harm do not want to continue with their lives or are crying for help.

    I believe that is a big part of why there is shame within the cutting and burning community. You are either suicidal or an attention seeker. But maybe you are trying to live and this is your de-stressor? Just like getting wasted or smoking a pack makes you feel better after a hard day (so they say).

    What I’m surprized on is.. socially.. you can kill your liver and destroy your source of oxygen, but if you put a knife to your skin making surface wounds or burn yourself (something humans do in the form of branding farm animals), you must want to die or want peoples attention or you are sick in the head. We are so caught up with how we look on the outside, we are ignoring the danger we are creating on the inside. Surface wounds leave scars, sometimes they do not, but it does not kill you with long-term effects like respitory or liver failure. Maybe we should rethink the social idea.

  6. Liver Pain

    Look, I know that right now our education tells us that these self-harm people have some type of disorder or something. But I have two words to some everything up “demon possessed”. I know that a lot of you don’t believe in them but I am telling you that a lot of these case exhibit common cases of demon possession.

  7. Elaine

    well interesting for me to read this…

    I am a self harmer… well when i was a teenager.. and now im, grown up and have a child of my own and carry the shame of a slashed left arm..

    I agree people self harm with food etc..
    I disagree with the thought self harm is a vague discription for cutting your arms

    As a self harmer i didnt cut myself to die.. or becuase i wanted to die/suicidal.. i did it for a release (light headed/drunk feeling) and attention.. i was in a childrens home and after i had done it 95 per cent of the other kids also cut themselves too.. but the home was used to it.

    I think if most teenegers admit it its attention when they are drunk etc.. or there like me and wanted to feel light headed.. i was a bit of both.. if i was in my parents house i never would of done it.. was a nightmare when my aprents found out/saw the scars..

    But you dont care what the home staff think.

    Saying that i was suicidal at one point.. but i didnt use cutting i took a mixture of tablets and locked myself in the homes bathroom, it was very late and a member of staff knocked door down when he realised id ben in a while.

    I got taken away in an ambulance spewing my guts up.. and foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog at 14 years old… i upset the staff a lot.. they visited me at hospiatal the next few weeks and one or two broke down into tears and hugged me.. then i realised they cared.

    I am 23 now and i have a 5 year old.. i am very ashamed about everything and embarresssed and dread the thought of my kids ever doing it or hearing i had done it.

    And id never ever do it again… that spewing fits were the worst ever and i hate needles and hospitals haha xx

    oh nearly forgot.. the reason of my comment.. i think i harm myself with food now…

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