Teenagers are the group of people most likely to self harm and often go to great lengths to hide their behavior from others. Recently, online forums offering a cloak of anonymity have been a place where individuals struggling with self harm congregate to talk about their habits, share photos and discuss their experiences. Though some of these forums offer support, they lack the structure and professional assistance needed to effectively help people dealing with these issues.
We asked the following questions to an individual who struggles with self harm and uses online forums and websites to talk about it.
Important: This Q&A is meant to give an understanding of self harm and online communities from the perspective of this person and should not be taken as advice.
How old are you and when did you begin to self-harm?
I am 21 years old and first started self harming when I was 12 years old.
Could you describe your experiences with self harm?
My self harm first started becoming habitual and harmful during my parent’s divorce. By the time I was 13 years old they had already been divorced for a few years, and my father, brothers and I had moved from Canada to Tennessee. So, as you would imagine, it was quite difficult for me to adjust to the new culture, new school, and the new woman my father was dating. With a troubling home life and my own self-induced guilt and shame that accompanied it, I started to self harm in more dangerous and, what I thought were “therapeutic” ways.
In the last year, my self harm hasn’t been too prevalent in everyday life and I only hurt myself every few months. Sometimes I’ll intentionally trigger myself by looking at pictures of others’ self harm on websites or hold razors in my hand. For example, I was browsing a website and read a story about a man who found a razor in the food he ordered from a restaurant. For reasons unknown even to me, looking at that picture somehow triggered me to self harm.
Have you ever turned to an online community to process your behavior?
Yes, I’ve used a few different websites that act as support forums for people who self harm. I’ve found that I get more satisfaction out of answering questions and responding to other’s posts more than my own posts. For me, posting anonymously helps me feel better about my situation when I know that everyone else can read it.
Although it changes, posts that explicitly describe what someone did to hurt themselves, how much they wanted to self harm, or how the wounds looked after they finished would often trigger me into hurting myself, especially back when I was self harming every day.
Often times, online communities can intensify or increase people’s self harm behavior. Have you personally experienced that, or seen it affect others online?
Like I said, there are a few different kinds of posts that might trigger people to self harm more often or more intensely. There are online forums where members take pictures of their self harm and post it anonymously online. This can make some people feel inferior about their self injury, and cause them to feel like they have to cut deeper or more often in order to make their self harm more legitimate or be considered a “real self harmer.” Shallower or less noticeable cuts or burns can be a source of disappointment for some self harmers.
Are your friends and family aware of this? If so, what have they done in response? If not, why haven’t you told them?
Most of my family is aware that I struggle with self harm. They often choose to ignore it unless I bring it up myself. The only people who bring it up on their own are my significant other and my aunt. I greatly appreciate their concern for me, even though I sometimes think it unnecessary.
What advice would you give to parents who suspect that their children may be self-harming? How do you start that conversation without pushing your child away?
Self harm is a very taboo subject, and bringing it out into the light makes it seem less scary and shameful. I’m not saying that you should constantly talk about self harm, but bringing it out into the open can be beneficial.
Based on my experiences, the best way for me to open up to someone was for the other person to make an effort to not judge me for my feelings and how I dealt with them. If you notice scars or cuts on their body, let them know in private and reassure them that you aren’t going to judge them. Self harm, like any other addiction, can be very difficult to break, and requires strength and assistance to overcome. Just letting a person know that you are always there for them can have a tremendous impact.