In an article published in the Daily Mail last week (8/6/19 The awful truth about why it's fashionable for teens to self harm), Max Pemberton drew on the age old, and completely unevidenced, myths about self-harm as attention seeking and implying that only ‘severe’ self-harm and mental ill health is worthy of our concern.

After 30 years supporting people who use self-harm we still find that these are some of the most enduring myths, and it is both saddening and frustrating to see them being parroted in a national newspaper by a medical professional who should know better.

Research has shown time and again two key things: that in general people don’t self-harm for attention – and if they do the very important question is why. As human beings we have evolved a very sophisticated way of communicating which is known as speaking, and if people are using injury to their own bodies to communicate instead of speaking we need to find out what has gone wrong.

In addition, self-harm is not always a response to mental illness. In his article Dr. Pemberton implies that many young people using self-harm find the idea of mental illness ‘glamourous’ and suggests they are taking support away from those with ‘more serious’ issues. The truth is that there are many very different life experiences that can lead people to self-harm, and this does not mean they are any less deserving of support and compassion.

Our core belief as a support organization is that everyone is worthy of support, and no one needs to prove to us that they are deserving or valid in contacting us. Making a hierarchy of ‘worthy’ distress and distress that is to be judged or seen as less valid is a slippery slope to health care that only supports those deemed by society as ‘deserving’.  

Is this the message we want to give young people? That when they are distressed, confused and frightened we will first have to judge if they are worthy of supporting?

When there are reports of increasing rates of self-harm amongst young people, it forces our society to look at itself and ask difficult questions about the experiences young people are having in a world that adults have created for them. This is a painful process and it is much easier to offer the quick fix responses of the internet being to blame; or that young people are just trying to be trendy or copy their friends, than to really engage with the reality of their emotional lives.

But to us this is a cop out, and one that is both dismissive and offensive to young people and indeed everyone who uses self-harm. The myths of attention seeking and contagion are not new; we have been hearing them for decades. The reasons behind self-harm are complex and multiple and to continue to reduce them to lazy stereotypes shows a continuing disregard for the mental health of young people and their value to society and our future.