On the BBC’s Today programme this week, John Humphrys was discussing the worrying new research from The Children’s Society, which has found that, over the course of a year, 16% of the children surveyed had hurt themselves in some way. Showing the levels of empathy and decorum that he has become famous for, Humphrys asked, “When we talk about harming themselves, what sort of harm? I mean, is it sort of – I mean, obviously all harm is bad,” – said with an audible eye-roll and all the sincerity of a man who knows that he has to say this, to avoid a social-media shitstorm – “but is it fairly mild stuff, you know, shallow scratching on the arms, or more than that?”
Mild. Mild. A child has felt so alone, so angry, so self-loathing or so overwhelmed by their own feelings that the only way they can get relief is to cause themselves physical pain but, according to Humphrys, because it’s just “shallow scratching on the arms” it’s only “mild”. Humphrys’ comments came on the same day that a 17-year-old girl in Wales, who self-harmed and had tried to take her own life, was told that as long as her self-harm wasn’t “cutting herself to death” she should “carry on”, so that she can get the help she needs when she turns 18. Because hey, as long as you’re not actually dying, it’s no big deal, eh? Not worth making a fuss about. Come back to us when you’re bruised, bleeding and broken, kids. Then we’ll take you seriously.
As a society, we have a history of downplaying self-harm like this. Unless there are deep, bleeding wounds or hospital trips, we see it as something inconsequential that can be ignored or even mocked. How many times have you heard someone – a friend, a teacher, a parent, a medical professional – say that someone was “just attention-seeking” because of the shallow cuts lining their limbs? Why don’t we realise that if a person is so desperate for attention that they’re willing to injure themselves for it, then maybe we should give them some goddamn attention?
It’s not about the depth of the scratches, but about the mental state of a person who feels so low that they’re willing to cause themselves harm because of it
This narrow view of what “serious” self-harm is holds people back from getting the help they need, because often we don’t realise that what a person is doing is self-harm. It took me years and two therapists to realise that my habit of eating until I felt physical pain was a form of self-harm. I still, on bad days, have a habit of biting and digging my fingernails into my wrists and hands – but it’s never made me bleed so, according to Humphrys and his ilk, I probably never even hit the “mild” notch on their Self-Harm-O-Meter.
Boys, in particular, are hurt by our narrow definitions of self-harm. One of the most common ways that boys self-harm is by punching things like walls or doors, or getting into fights. This behaviour is justified as being “aggressive” rather than “emotional”, so they’re told off rather than offered help. Another way boys often self-harm is to over-exercise and rigidly control their eating – and it’s seen as them being athletic and focused, so they’re praised for it.
While the highest recorded form of self-harm in females is cutting, in males, it’s self-poisoning. Men will more likely take ibuprofen or paracetamol to put themselves to sleep, accidentally overdose and end up in hospital. Maybe if we didn’t think that self-harm that doesn’t make you bleed is “mild”, we wouldn’t end up in a situation where boys are literally poisoning themselves because they don’t think what they’re doing is that serious.
The findings of The Children’s Society’s report are terrifying. Nearly a quarter of the girls and 9% of the boys surveyed said that they had self-harmed in the past year – and I wonder how those numbers would increase if there was a better understanding of what self-harm actually is. Of the children who were attracted to either the same or multiple genders, 46% of them had self-harmed. Based on these figures, The Children’s Society have estimated that across the UK in one year, nearly 110,000 14-year-old children may have self-harmed. This is not a fringe issue. It’s something that affects people of all genders, ages, races, locations and any other demographic you can think of.
These people need our help, and the first thing we can do is stop categorising self-harm as “mild” or “serious”. It’s not about the depth of the scratches, but about about the mental state of a person who feels so low that they’re willing to cause themselves harm because of it. Let’s solve that problem rather than quibbling over whether or not it’s serious enough to be worried about in the first place, yeah?