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Generation ‘whine’ and other self-harm myths

By Jenny Jones - posted Thursday, 19 June 2008

Perhaps you already care about self-harm. You wrote your worries on your body one night, too empty to feel much as you sought to tell others what you couldn’t explain to yourself. You covered up more than wounds with bandages and wore winter clothing on summer days as a talisman against shame.

You tried it once because you wanted to feel alive, and when you tried to stop, your mind declared otherwise. You replaced one kind of pain with another, which felt a lot like self-help, and the logic of your universe came undone.

Or perhaps you've never cared about self-harm, maybe you just read about it, and became interested in the lore of “cutting culture” - how it is a fad promoted by the “emo” subculture, how it is all about attention-seeking, all about suicidal intent, all about manipulation, how it drove some kid in America to shoot his classmates. Perhaps you don't care about self-harm at all.


Well, now would be a good time to start.

Young people who self-harm* provoke plenty of vilification, but not enough care. Figures published recently by The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) show that hospitalisation for self-harm among people aged 12 to 24 has risen by 43 per cent in 10 years.

But while the jump is disturbing, so too is the hidden number of young people who self-harm but don’t seek help, silent casualties of moral panic and mental health stigma. Ignorance has allowed self-harm to become something ridiculed and taboo, something to talk about in whispers, with cynical sneers. Much is said about self-harm; very little of that is true.

So let's clear up a few misconceptions. Self-harm is not a fashion statement. It is not about exploiting the goodwill of others in order to be noticed. It does not “cause” homicidal behaviour, unless you are a darkly imaginative journalist with a penchant for attention-grabbing sensationalism. Self-harm’s tenuous link to emo (short for “emotional”) comes from the music genre’s lyrics - intimate, confessional - and though they’re certainly an acquired taste, it’s naïve to believe that counterculture is the poison in the well of mainstream society.

Rather, self-harm is a coping mechanism. It is a way of controlling, diverting or communicating overwhelming feelings. (The relationship between self-harm and suicide is complex; in most cases it is not intended to be fatal.)

Knowing what they’re up against - the stereotypes, the prejudice - you start to understand why some young people who self-harm claim “accidental injury” in hospital emergency rooms. And you start to understand why they might find false solace in the “safety” of secrecy, too.


Self-harm is not a “psychotic” act - any more than responding to stress by drowning one’s sorrows in a pot or two of beer is. But the mythology of self-harm denotes otherwise, spurred on by negative spin from a media industry indifferent to empowering young people equally. Vulnerable young people are too often demonised; those in need of help most.

Many people describe self-harm as a way of surviving emotional pain. Its false reputation for being just another phase to grow out of, much like pushing boundaries, keeps young people in need of support trapped in a cycle of mute dysfunction. It may not always indicate an underlying mental illness, but no matter how moderate - or not - the self-inflicted injuries are, it is a symptom of something more complicated than growing pains or coming-of-age.

Too often, self-harm is hidden behind bright smiles, active social lives, and good grades - places where it is easily overlooked - but as the mythology has grown, concern has been lost to compassion fatigue, a “whatever” shrug about the fragility of life.

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For help or information call Kids Help Line on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 131 114.

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About the Author

Jenny Jones is a Sydney writer.

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