Spring is in the air, we can finally drink tea in each other’s gardens and little shoots of hope that the next 12 months might not be as gruelling as the last are poking through. For Self Injury Support’s oral history project, started – and then abruptly stopped – in March 2020 (thanks, Covid), this means we are finally beginning some actual interviewing.  

But first our hardy band of volunteers must learn the art of interviewing at a distance – a new skill for any oral historian, who traditionally insist on doing all interviews face to face. Building up trust and a good relationship with your interviewee is not easy when you’re talking over a computer screen. Though as some of our volunteers are veterans of Self Injury Support’s phone, text and email support services, they are already used to making women in crisis feel listened to in any and all available mediums. No doubt they will teach us ‘experts’ a thing or two during training.  

The middle of a global pandemic is not the ideal time to start an oral history project. That said, the very unpredictablility of the last year has shown us that the best time to start preserving and recording the history of our remarkable organisation is now; for who knows what is round the corner?  

Evolving from the Women and Mental Health Network set up in 1986, Bristol Crisis Service for Women had its roots in the feminist practice of consciousness-raising. Women coming together to talk about their lives and recognise their common problems provided the basis for BCSW’s peer to peer support model.  

Women didn’t need experts to tell them what was wrong with them, they needed someone to listen as they tried to put their distress into words. What soon became clear from the callers to BCSW’s weekend helplines was that many women were using self injury as a ‘silent scream’ of emotional pain and the most common reason they were in pain was violence and abuse at the hands of men.  

If that sounds pretty heavy, it is, but the story of BCSW is first and foremost a celebration of female empowerment. Our volunteer interviewers will hear how some of the most marginalised and dismissed women came together to create the services they needed but were not getting. How they became trainers, telling doctors and psychiatrists how they could treat women better; and researchers, publishing groundbreaking reports on self injury among some of the most vulnerable communities of women such as prisoners and the learning disabled. The women of BCSW broke down the secrecy and shame around self injury. The power of women listening to women ended up not only changing lives but also NICE guidelines.  

You can imagine how excited we are to be finally in a position to start collecting these stories. If you’ve got one to tell, please do get in touch.