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Sian Bradley on being open about self-harm

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Trigger Warning: the following article discusses a sensitive topic in detail. Please read at your own discretion. 

It’s difficult to estimate how many people in the UK suffer from self-harm, mainly because most keep it very private. According to Self-Harm UK, there was a 70% rise in 2014 for 10-14-year-olds attending A&E for self-harm related issues.

 

Image Courtesy of Sian Bradley.

Sian Bradley, a 22 year-old journalism graduate originally from West Bromwich is working with The Mix, the UK’s only digital charity, speaking out about her experiences with self-harm. Now a freelance journalist, she tells us it has helped her to overcome some of her mental health issues – primarily by giving her a sense of purpose. She says: “I’ve always found writing about my mental health is the best way to work through my feelings – I still keep a journal at the age of 22, because it’s really beneficial to me on a personal level.”

More than this though, in speaking out about her own experiences, Sian hopes to normalise talking about mental health issues – in particular, self-harm. It is typical for Sian to receive several responses from others who open up to her after reading her articles, however, she doesn’t necessarily want to be praised for it. She does believe that, on a personal level, it’s admirable to talk about what you’ve gone through – but Sian wants to normalise this – “I don’t want it to be brave, I want it to be normal. I don’t want it to be ‘well done you for talking about something so shameful’.

There is also a potentially harmful discourse surrounding the topic of mental health issues: whilst some trivialise them on social media, others feel that perhaps their experiences pale in comparison to others’. Sian believes that, when this festers, mental health issues can be left to crisis point: “There’s always this fear with people that they’re not bad enough, they’re not ill enough, they’re not depressed/anxious enough, they’re not thin enough to have an eating disorder; it’s really counterproductive and damaging, because everyone deals with mental health issues in different ways.”

Self-harm is perhaps one of the most understood mental health disorders, more so than anxiety and depression, because there is more of a stigma surrounding it. Sian articulates this, “. We’re getting so much better at talking about depression and anxiety; it’s a very open conversation now I’d say. There are still stigmas, there are pockets of society that will tell you to get over it or blame it on the ‘millennials’, and there’s definitely still a stigma attached. But there are still stigmas – not just about self-harm, I’d say it’s with schizophrenia, bipolar, borderline personality disorder, eating disorders.”

Sian and I delved into why people are unwilling to talk openly about self-harm: that is, although there is a conversation on social media, a lot of it, until more recently, contributed to stigmatisation – people are painted as “attention-seeking” in the same way that “skeleton-thin girls” were almost fetishised, glamorising eating disorders.

Although wrongly deemed at times as “attention-seeking”, Sian says that ultimately, self-harm is “really a cry for help”. Sian had a complicated relationship with social media as she was growing up, “There’s part of you that is feeding of the fact that it seems desirable, and I think social media, then anyway, when I was seeing these pictures and stuff, it was almost as if people were showing off about self-harm, and I thought maybe I should do. It’s really fucked up, it is.

Thankfully, due to digital charities such as The Mix, the way in which we engage with social media is changing. A huge milestone headed by the charity has been the change in Instagram’s regulation of graphic self-harm images that often arise with no trigger warning.

 

Ultimately, self-harming is a visible illness and Sian believes that this is why it misunderstood, much like addiction: “It’s not just cutting – self-harm can be pinching, hair-pulling, burning, isolating, using drink and drugs, but it’s more likely to be visible. I guess it’s the same with addiction which is heavily stigmatised as well.”

Having dealt with the stigma first-hand, one of the main reasons Sian began to talk about her self-harming was because it was revealed during school. Though terrifying to begin to talk about it, this somewhat came as a relief – she recalls, “. I felt so embarrassed and that’s the main reason it was this wave of nautea and the blood running out of you- all I could think was just pretend it’s nothing and get people to move on. That was my default for a while – I remember my nan asking what was on my arm at one point, and I don’t think I was ever honest with anyone at the time, because you know it was really difficult to talk about and it is difficult to talk about.”

The now-writer questions whether how she would have spoken about her self-harming had it not come out in school: she tells us that it can be upsetting for a friend or family member to hear. However, a bad experience when telling someone can also have a long-lasting effect too: Friends at that age are hardly going to be able to talk to them, because you don’t really understand yourself, so it’s unlikely that other kids at the age of 14 are going to have the emotional maturity to understand self-harm, so it can feel really isolating. It’s important to remember there are ways to talk to other people; just stopping out of shame is not a healthy way to deal with it. Understanding why you’re doing what you’re doing is the first step to getting better.”

Understanding why she wanted to receive help was a big turning point for Sian, “I just got to a point of being fed up of hiding my arms and being scared of people finding out, and that was more of a driving force than wanting to stop.”

Self-harm is never something that she has recovered from or got over: she admits that she relapses. She candidly explains, “It might just be more of a case of building coping methods for yourself, so that you can get into a habit of doing something else when you get a compulsion, understanding what triggers it, and how to keep yourself safe. It’s more about management than it is about curing yourself of the thoughts because I feel like mental health issues do have a lasting effect. I was anorexic when I was 14, and I still struggle with body image and thoughts around food, but the way I view them has changed and the way that I deal with them and prioritise them. Its more important to focus on how to keep yourself safe, managing thoughts, reacting more positively and realising that they are just thoughts. They’ll come and go depending on what you're dealing with, rather than having a pressure on yourself to stop the thoughts.”

From someone who has self-harmed, what actually is self-harm?

Self-harm, as Sian says, “goes against evolutionary processes”, and so is often difficult for friends and family members to understand.

I asked Sian to explain why it became a compulsion for her.

“It’s when you’re feeling really intense emotions, for example, if something really bad has happened. For me it was about personal failings that I felt – self-harm is obviously different for everyone but ultimately it’s self-punishment, related to low self-esteem and a lack of understanding of yourself and poor self-image. The thought of hurting yourself, it does go against evolutionary processes. So if I was explaining it to someone I didn’t know is that it’s a really overwhelming feeling, and the only thing you can hold onto in your head because your head is just – you feel really lost, angry, sad, or anxious or a combination of all that. And it’s causing your thoughts to be all over the place, and you have a physical reaction as well. The only thought that becomes clear is ‘I need to hurt myself’. It becomes consuming and hard to get through- you become convinced that it is the only way you can cope with your feelings.”

Continuing, she went on to talk about the actual act itself and how to combat the feelings of compulsion and necessity – “The pain is a release, and it’s shocking yourself into dealing with these thoughts, and for many people it’s the act and the shock of the pain of it that makes them feel that they’re offloading or working through their thoughts. That’s why it’s important to do something that doesn’t hurt you but gives you that same shock, like flicking an elastic band on your wrist, or something that isn’t as harmful, but helps you with that compulsion you’ve curated.”

“It’s an intense emotion, and self-harm is a cathartic release of that. The feeling is a control, a way of controlling the emotions but that’s how people start to think about it.”

Sian’s ability to talk so candidly and openly about what can be a very sensitive topic is compelling and I learnt so much myself from conducting my interview. What can be taken away, is the importance of talking about mental health issues before they reach a crisis point.

If you are suffering from self-harm or any mental health issues, seek support from your local GP or wellbeing practitioner. For more information on self-harm and support available, visit The Mix or Mind.

Lead Image Courtesy of Sian Bradley.

 




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