Experience: self-harm at university

12192736_554785274670908_1070694622_o (1)By Hansen, 4 months since relapse

It’s a funny old time to have depression. From dragging yourself through the motions day to day, to fairly useless ‘advice’ (using the term lightly), to oblivious onlookers simply taking you for a dour sod, it’s never exactly been fun. But there are interesting developments afoot. On one hand, a torrent of Facebook posts, ‘relatable’ celebrities, and other well meaning parties will now tell you that it not only exists (which believe you me is progress), but that it is both more difficult and far more common than you think. On top of this, there is a much greater interest in mental health awareness generally. A government petition to introduce mental health education to the national curriculum has gathered 24,169 signatures at the time of writing, and received a response from the government. Having said this, despite this glimmer of light that maybe stigma is beginning to wane and lines of conversation on depression have opened just a crack, there remain a series of curious phantom faces at the window not invited into the discussion. One of these is that of the self-harmer.

When I wrote a first iteration of this article, timed for Self-Harm Awareness Day on March 1st as the smell of freedom from summative hell (suspiciously orange and cranberry tinged) grew more pungent and the promise of spring loomed, I was roundly ignored by a nameless other Durham outlet. Whether this was mere clerical pileup or whether the house that brought us the thunderous revelation that Durham is the homophobia capital of the world is less committed to social issues than it thought, it would be impolite to speculate. Nevertheless it occurred to me that self-harm being ignored was becoming a recurring feature in Durham life. The people around me have always seemed at ease with the knowledge of my depression and other such ailments, willing even to discuss it if only to the point of the obligatory and useless “You’d never know, you know”. Despite this, the selective ignorance people can display when finding a convenient solution to more serious problems is, at times, astounding. From a casually cocked eyebrow and hint of a wry smile at my bin full of bloodstained rags with a ‘had an accident hun?’ to, when in the middle of term I would be careless with showing lacerated skin and someone would grin and make a comment related to the pitfalls of passionate family pets, (I can only imagine they reared wolverines). It seemed not so much that there was an elephant in the room as it was one only I bothered to ignore.

Perhaps all of this is unfair, though. Self-harmers are painfully private, right? True, sometimes. But maybe just once at 2am while meticulously scurrying around communal bathrooms trying to get every last drop of blood that might have spilt, or waking up feeling okay with the world until catching your latest artwork’s reflection as sombre reminder, one wishes they could talk. And maybe when you are hundreds, maybe thousands of miles from home and stereotypical tumblr posts aren’t enough anymore, it would be nice if there was a person there instead. But the problem remains that people, even within the supposedly liberal and progressive walls of university, don’t seem ready to talk about it. When one is reprimanded for bothering welfare volunteers with an issue so extreme, despite their reputation as being the first, logical, and reliable port of call for everything from homesickness to assault, you too might think twice about trying people you know again. Logical though counselling services are, the thought of talking to a stranger and, moreover, admitting you really do have a problem both out loud and to yourself, is a great leap from zero for many.

Of course none of this would dare to attempt to illicit sympathy in the reader, only to illicit thought. Perfectly functional people in your everyday life could be battling this constant clandestine rigmarole – they don’t have to be the one sat alone in all black listening to My Chemical Romance (we all lived through the Mid-Noughties, the kid has taste) – personally I was what some would call irresponsibly outgoing. The UK has one of the highest rates of self-harm prevalence in Europe, and in 2014 government findings saw an increase of around 70% in 10-14 year olds attending A&E with self-inflicted injuries. This shows that inside as well as outside of university this is an issue that needs to be talked about sooner rather than later, especially considering that with the intense secrecy around it, the statistics could never really be an accurate representation of the size of the issue.

And so my plea to the friends is this – don’t bury your head in the sand; keep your eyes open. There’s only a certain extent the excuses can hold water. Don’t suspect everyone who has a nosebleed to clear up, but small signs like coming out of the shower fully clothed, getting their clean outfit sopping wet, or not liberating their woolly jumper in the furnace of Klute’s top floor could add up over time. Have a look at websites with dedicated pages like Mind, to see how you can help, and help in the correct manner. Because above all else as the nights draw in again, it’s easy to feel an increasing amount of darkness in your life, as the independence of university turns into woeful solitude, thinking you have nowhere to turn, whether fresher or established student. And to the sufferers – know that you’re not alone; I challenge you to tell one friend. They may not understand, but opening conversation little by little helps us all – and I promise having one person you don’t have to hide from is a huge relief.

Mental health is entering into the public consciousness; it just needs a bit of a push.

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