Can We Look At Self-Harm?

By Brigit McWade, 1st February 2019

On 28th January, news media reported on Sir Nick Clegg’s first speech as Facebook’s new global affairs chief. The BBC framed this event in the context of a rising concern around young people, social media and mental health, citing a father of a young woman who had committed suicide blaming Instagram in part for her death.

The BBC’s media editor Amol Rajan took it upon himself to print out some images of self-harm he had found on Instagram and share them with Clegg in his interview.

Rajan opens with ‘Slit wrists. Smeared blood. You’ve got three children, would you let them anywhere near that?’

Embodying the figure of a deeply concerned father, Clegg responds “No, of course not”.

Rajan and Clegg’s exchange treat self-harm as a bad behaviour, a dangerous one that needs intervention. Their logic proceeds thus: if you don’t see it, you won’t do it. They act as paternalistic heroes working to protect young, vulnerable people from self-harm.

But what is wrong with sharing images of self-harm on social media? And can they really be linked to an increase in self-harm and suicide? Self-harm has risen sharply, especially amongst teenage girls and young women in the last few years. The links have been made between this and the increased use of social media by this age group. If this matter effects the digitally native teenage girl, why then, is it two adult men who positioned as experts in this matter?

The causal link between media and self-harm is highly tenuous. Fairly obviously, self-harm existed before social media, or indeed other media technologies such as the television and radio. Indeed, self-harm existed before it was named as self-harm. As a teenage girl, in a time known as ‘before the internet’, I self-harmed. I did it before I could name it as ‘self-harm’ or know its lexicon. This is not to assert that there is no relationship between representations of self-harm and its practice, but the nature and complexity of this interaction is far from established.

Debate concerning media representations of mental health have informed anti-stigma campaigns and press guidelines, steering reporters away from grizzly details and attempting to stem prejudice with “the facts”. However, the problem with this approach is that is works back-to-front: a rise in self-harm is determined as the problem (especially amongst young people), social media is identified as the cause (through accessibility of imagery). But no-one stops to ask how those terms are defined or contextualised.

Self-harm takes many forms, some of which can be socially celebrated (drinking to excess, extreme sports), whilst other methods repel. These different perspectives on self-harm are informed by who is self-harming. The term self-harm conjures images mostly of young women cutting themselves. Dominant media discourse leads with an image of a young white woman, head in hands, and goes on to describe her as beautiful and intelligent to emphasise how inexplicably tragic is it that she would choose to injure herself. This demonstrates how gendered, racialised and classed self-harm is. Would her self-harm matter less if she was a man? Learning disabled? Of colour? Or ugly?

If self-harm is not a singular or fixed entity, then we must ask first how best to conceptualise it in a way that is sensitive to who self-harms and in what context. People with experience of self-harm have published widely and developed approaches to self-harm to seek to reframe this as a reasonable coping strategy, self-soothing, and far from aberrant behaviour. These will be reviewed in more detail in future blogs as part of this special section.

To pitch self-harm as salacious and gory, as I would argue both Rajan and Clegg do – “smeared blood!” – is to bring shame upon those who self-harm. It focuses on individuals who self-harm, not the context they are dealing with that might lead them to do so. To equate self-harm with aberration is to ignore the violence, trauma and inequalities that lead to self-harm and to deny that self-harm is a legitimate response.

Of course, something else is at stake in this news story. Blaming social media use for an increase of self-harm is part of a broader conservative move for greater regulation and control of media cultures. This story takes many forms, repeated time and again, for example with the James Bulger murder and video games, with the Columbine shootings and Marilyn Manson. Populist characterisation of how young people engage with social media is as equally one-dimensional as our understanding of what precipitates self-harm. As more and more concerns are raised about young people’s use of social media and their poor mental health, the opportunity to work through these complexities decreases.

As Stuart Hall argued those with institutional expertise (a global affair chief, a media editor, a concerned father) get to define what can and cannot be said about a topic, and anyone joining that conversation, as we are trying to do here, must insert themselves into that definition. In the relationship between control culture and the media, ‘violence marks the distinction between those who are fundamentally of society and those who are outside’. Thus, self-harm has become an issue with popular force to inform debates about whether large corporations who have created our best-known social media platforms can now begin to control what we do and don’t share on them, and to what effect.

Whilst it is not my intent to characterise mediations of self-harm as benign or easy to engage with, I do strongly assert that to erase self-harm from sight, and to remove the opportunity of self-determination and peer support in a media that most young people use is a violence of its own. To treat self-harm as a contagious entity, transmitted through sight, is to shut down opportunities for the development of a counter-narrative to the highly gendered, racialised and classed discourse we find in mainstream media. We only need look at the social conditions for those who are more likely to self-harm to recognise that they are more likely to be those growing up in a world that isn’t shaped for them. For example, it is Black teenage girls who are most likely to self-harm and least likely to receive support, as well as LGB students, and young people from deprived areas are also at a higher risk.

The same night of Rajan’s egregious interview with Clegg, I flick over to Channel 4 news to see a story about two Drill musicians who have been threatened with a prison sentence for performing their music. It is alleged that drill music incites gang violence. Artist AM eloquently summarises the problem with control of media culture, for both drill music and self-harm:

One of the things I struggled with when I was coming up in this scene was … we know….there’s a root problem … music or not there’s a problem in this area … nobody cares, that’s what we take from this, nobody cares. So, the fact that people are being allowed to live in it, live it day to day and experience that, that’s not a problem? However, making it known, saying it, that’s the problem?

To have those in power attempt to shut down forms of expression that articulate all that is wrong in the world through media control is bad enough. To have Nick Clegg, who in coalition with the Conservative party saw a wide-sweeping programme of austerity measures and welfare reform, that is hitting young people particularly hard, is beyond the pale.

Brigit McWade works as both a Research Associate at Lancaster Medical School, and as an Athena SWAN Officer in the Faculty of Arts and Social Science at Lancaster University. Her work to date has explored ‘recovery’ in mental health policy and practice, mental health stigma in the context of neoliberal capitalism and austerity measures, and the politics of representation of madness and distress in popular culture and academic discourse.

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