**Content warning: This post contains discussions of self-harm and suicide that some people may find distressing or triggering**
It’s that time of year again. As autumn arrives along with colder weather, most of us are begrudgingly retrieving our jackets and oversized knitwear from the back of our wardrobes. But for people like me this season marks the end of months of anxiety. I first self-harmed 11 years ago. A particularly tough spell of depression last winter has left me with fresh thick red scars to join the silvery white lines of scar tissue across my arms. For me, summer is a season of excuses. I tell my family I’m not really that warm as I fan my red face. But no matter how deep the shame, there is only so much sweating in long sleeves that one person can take.
I came to this conclusion while doing dissertation reading in a West End café on a particularly hot summer day. As the sun beat down on me through the windows, I finally gave in and peeled off my cardigan. Exposing my scars usually elicits no more from others than a rude stare or an uncomfortable expression of acknowledgment. I never could have predicted what would happen next. As the pair of middle aged women sitting next to me rose to leave, one spotted my marked arms. She looked to her friend, tutted and muttered “Silly girl”. I would love to tell you that at this point I stood to confront the woman, calling her out for her stigmatising attitude and rudeness. I was so taken aback I shrank in my seat, hiding behind my hair.
This is certainly not the first time that I have encountered a patronising attitude towards my self-harming behaviour. The first time I required emergency treatment for a cut, the triage nurse hit me on the arm and called me a bad girl. As if I was a small child on a time out rather than a 20-something woman in obvious emotional distress. The first time I was admitted for self-poisoning, I lay in my hospital bed feigning sleep as nurses reprimanded my “manipulative” behaviour. According to them I was a timewaster, only looking for attention. Most recently, I was informed by a consultant that I was a beautiful girl who shouldn’t scar her pretty skin. Women’s bodies are public property, and self-harm is no exception.
We all know that suicide is a leading cause of death in young men. This should matter to all of us. However, the Scottish Health Survey recently found that 23% of Scottish women aged 18 to 24 report self-harming. Do we ever stop to consider how we react to them? We are told that it is more acceptable for women to be open about their mental health, but how much truth is there in this statement?
As a woman seeking help for mental health, I have been brushed off as manipulative, hysterical and attention seeking. The way we discuss mental health is inherently gendered. Men have far higher rates of completed suicide compared to women. But even this is presented as a manifestation of male strength, rather than a tragic consequence of toxic masculinity. Men choose more violent methods, whereas women are more likely to end up in a hospital bed explaining themselves to a tired A&E doctor. This attitude prevails even when serious damage has been done. As I was admitted for a two night stay after an overdose, a nurse tutted and said “I think you did more damage than you meant to, love”. It can’t be that bad. If things were really that bad, I wouldn’t be here after all.
Self-harm is a feminist issue, and we need to change the way we react to mental health in all genders. Silence over mental health should not be praised as a manifestation of the British stiff upper lip. Campaigns to reduce male suicide rates focus on encouraging men to open up about their mental health. This is an admirable aim, but to someone who has been through the mental health system it is painfully naïve. In the last few years I have found myself in a hospital bed begging for help on multiple occasions, before being discharged to the care of my ill equipped flatmates.
We are facing a crisis in young women’s mental health, and it is one that we are ill equipped to deal with. Our reactions to self-harm in young women are skewed by gendered assumptions. Just as young men are encouraged to stay silent, young women’s self-harming behaviour is brushed off as silly, childish or “just a phase”. Or even, something that is harmful because it’ll damage our appearance. Both gendered attitudes are endangering young people. Treating women as hysterical and irrational during periods of deep emotional turmoil does nothing to combat the stigma around mental health. We can’t simultaneously encourage people to open up about mental health whilst branding those who do as attention seekers. There is no point in encouraging anyone to open up about their mental health if the help is not available for them when they do. Self-harm is a feminist issue because feminism, among other things, is about breaking down gender stereotypes and particularly, the negative ones around women and our rationality. Women with mental health issues, who may also self-harm, are people who deserve respectful support. Not silly girls.