Is there harm in raising awareness??
Students are often targeted by health campaigns. The most recent problem to fall into the spotlight is self-harm, with some newspaper reports (see tinyurl.com/2c578z)?suggesting that one adolescent in 12 deliberately injures themselves on a regular basis. Self-harm – the act of cutting or burning oneself as means of coping with difficult emotions or releasing tension, without the intention of committing suicide – has attracted many awareness campaigns and support movements.
But could it be argued that the level this attention has reached is almost as unhealthy as the behaviour itself? We are being made all too painfully aware of the practice of self-injury. Through the many awareness initiatives currently in operation, the horrifying act of deliberately harming oneself is fast becoming normalised.
According to Dr Michaela Swales, a lecturer and practitioner in clinical psychology at the University of Wales (reported in The Guardian in 2003: see tinyurl.com/26z3wn), ‘Cutting oneself is simply an unhealthy habit, not that different from drowning one’s sorrows in a few drinks, drug taking or smoking cigarettes to relieve stress. Rationally, we know that smoking is bad for our health and will harm us in the long term. But in the short term it makes us feel better, so we do it. It’s the same for those who cut themselves.’
Similarly, Amanda Allard, senior public policy officer for the charity NCH, explained in the Times Educational Supplement (see tinyurl.com/2p7gr7): ‘You have to try to normalise it, putting it into a spectrum with other behaviour that’s not necessarily so good for us, such as too much drinking.’
But surely having a beer, to ease the guilt of putting off that big essay, is a far cry from slashing your arms because the thing just won’t write itself?
There are also several self-injury awareness movements that (to varying degrees) seek to destigmatise the act, such as Young Minds’ ‘empowering young people who self-harm’ (see www.youngminds.org.uk/beyondthelabel/ index.php), the Lifesigns Self Injury Guidance and Network Support (www.lifesigns.org.uk), and the National Self-harm Network (www.nshn.co.uk). Could such initiatives actually reinforce and encourage the problem, rather than being preventative or helpful?
The 2005 ‘Written on the Body’ review of existing literature on self-cutting (tinyurl.com/2pdlup) indicated, among other causal factors, ‘exposure to environments in which self-cutting can be “learnt”’. However, the National Self Injury Inquiry’s ‘The Truth Hurts’ report (www.selfharmuk.org), which took into account evidence from this review, still concluded in its recommendations:
In order to tackle widespread misunderstanding about why young people self-harm the Inquiry calls upon UK Health Departments to develop UK-wide awareness raising campaigns, with the aims of educating the public about why young people self-harm and encouraging non-judgemental, positive responses to young people who do so.
Life as a student, constantly warned that you may turn to self-injury to cope with your problems and that this is far more normal than you would imagine, seems a fitting description of ‘exposure to environments where self-cutting can be “learnt”’. Current statistics suggest that the number of self-injury awareness campaigns and the number of people self-injuring have risen hand in hand. Are campaigns springing up in response to a growing problem, or is there something more surprising and worrying going on here?
In my view, as long as self-injury is discussed as a common and legitimate expression of distress amongst students and young people, and as long as the behaviour is normalised and publicised through awareness initiatives, people will increasingly turn to this very behaviour as a way of communicating and relieving their discomfort. We must therefore seek to question the necessity for, and challenge the usefulness of, such campaigns, and ultimately ask ‘Is awareness making us ill?’.
Rachel Crowley is a psychology student at Birkbeck, University of London. E-mail: [email protected].
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