Mental Health with Emily Fry
CW: self-harm, self-injury, suicide, scars, body image, relapse
Summer is the undisputed excuse for us Brits to finally show some skin. It is the time to fish out our swimwear from the dark and deep depths of our wardrobes, to dust these items off after being temporarily retired and breathe a new lease of life into them as a summer full of promise awaits us. Of course, a British summer doesn’t always equate to uninterrupted sunshine. In fact, more often than not, it means enduring many overcast and ‘muggy’ days in anticipation of our next beach trip. While the sunshine comes and goes, one thing that is guaranteed during British summers is the sudden increase in temperature where, almost miraculously, things become much hotter.
For some people, this opportunity to bear all isn’t exciting, but actually very daunting. Summer can be a particularly challenging time for those who self-harm. Rather than having to contend with the subtle gazes of prying and often judgemental eyes, many go to great lengths to disguise their scars during these prolonged periods of heat. Any discomfort that may or may not be experienced is a necessary sacrifice – it is an essential measure that is taken to protect a person from being made to feel ashamed and guilty. This need to hide self-harm scars is seen as all the more urgent during the summertime even in spite of the heat.
Around this time last year, I had an incredibly bad relapse. After months of furlough, and with no immediate return to my job in sight, I felt completely at a loss with everything. I had spent months without any purpose and without any routine, and I hit breaking point. I felt alone and I felt hopeless; more than that, however, I felt completely worthless. I started to question what difference it would make if I was no longer around and I quickly became consumed by destructive thoughts, overwhelmed by a need to hurt myself. For the first time in two years, I self-harmed and I self-harmed badly. I had to be taken to A&E to receive medical attention and I was later sent on to a crisis service of sorts who attempted to assess my current mental state and whether I was safe to return home which, thankfully, I was allowed to do.
When I relapsed last year, it felt like all the progress I had worked so hard to make had instantly been erased, leaving me with a series of unwanted markings that confirmed my weakness. Recovery isn’t a linear process and relapses can happen, but this is still something I struggle to talk about even a year on. In the weeks that followed, I worried about the reaction to my scars when I dared to venture outside with my legs on display. On the few occasions that I felt brave enough to wear shorts and skirts, I felt strangely exposed – almost as if something that was always intensely private had suddenly become public knowledge. The emphasis that is placed on women’s bodies and the widespread censorship that operates in society, urging women to comply with approved standards of propriety, is something that I am already very much acquainted with as a young woman. I’ve always been acutely aware of the limits imposed on my appearance by wider society: what is deemed acceptable; what is deemed appropriate; where the so-called proverbial line is drawn before intervention is necessary and I am due a reminder of what is what is right and what is wrong. Self-harm scars aren’t even accounted for in these standards – they remain firmly out of the question.
Of course, this isn’t an issue that only affects women – self-harm can affect anyone and everyone, with the pressure to hide scars being felt so strongly by so many. Studies are yet to report precise figures that show how self-harm rates have been affected by the Coronavirus pandemic. Even before the pandemic hit, however, people who struggled with self-harm were unable to access the support they needed: in fact, it was found that only 38% of people who self-harmed in England received medical and/or psychological support. The lack of support available means that so many people are forced to manage these feelings on their own, desperately searching through all online forums and blogs that claim to the answers on how to cope during summer if you have self-harm scars as their only source of reassurance.
There are many articles out there offering tips and tricks on how best to cover up scars and how to dress most appropriately for the heat. While I am not disputing that some of the information included in these articles can genuinely be helpful to some individuals, the major problem with many of these articles is that they feed into the narrative that self-harm is an affliction that people should be actively trying to hide any evidence of. Rather than encouraging people to not focus so much on others and to recognise and establish their limits regarding what they feel comfortable doing, the overwhelming and unfortunate implication of these articles is that self-harm is something to be ashamed of. Why would a person feel brave enough to show their scars, daring to defy the word of many of these articles, when it is painfully clear that self-harm is something to be embarrassed about?
There have been more than a few occasions where I’ve encountered the awkward questions that anyone with an awareness of or experience of self-harm comes to dread. “Oh, what happened to your arm?” a former classmate of mine once asked after I took off my blazer and revealed my forearms at high school. I know, looking back, that this wasn’t a question asked with any malice. For a lot of people, comprehending why a person would want to hurt themselves is a struggle – it isn’t exactly emotional immaturity, but it is a certain kind of ignorance where a person’s understanding of a specific issue remains limited due to inexperience. Being able to empathise with self-harm shouldn’t depend entirely on whether it is something that has affected an individual personally or not, and sensitivity about this issue shouldn’t be a luxury only a few are afforded. While I like to think the majority of people have the sense to not ask unnecessary questions, I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate the fact that there is never any need to ask someone ‘what happened’ after noticing any scars they may have – this line of questioning is not only intrusive, but it is also incredibly insensitive and ignorant. Wanting to learn more and wanting to educate yourself about an issue such as self-harm is certainly not a bad thing, but there are ways to do this – interrogating someone who still may be working through these feelings, or someone who still has a complicated relationship with their scars, is not the way to do so.
An individual’s choice to cover up or to show their scars is a personal one. While this decision will vary from person to person, the simple fact remains that no one ever has the right to interfere with this choice. No one ever owes you an explanation for the choices they make concerning their appearance and no one should ever have to justify themselves for the benefit of others. For some people, scars are a reminder of what has been overcome; evidence of the battles that have been won. Bearing these scars without hiding them away can be incredibly empowering, it is an act of defiance that is incredibly freeing. For others, scars are something that an individual still has yet to come to terms with – an unfinished chapter in the ongoing story that they are writing. The last thing these individuals need is unsolicited opinions from strangers – opinions that often seek to determine whether this person is attention-seeking or awareness raising. As long as each person is comfortable with the decision they make, that is all that matters.
As summer prepares to bid us farewell for yet another year, please remember that a person’s choice to show or hide their scars is not something that is open to debate and not something that a person should face scrutiny about. While the pressure to hide scars is heightened during summer, this pressure isn’t a seasonal occurrence and it’s vital that we challenge attitudes that breed shame in all forms and at all times. We have to do better but, above all, we have to be more kind.
For further information and advice concerning self-harm, be sure to check out Harmless, LifeSIGNS and the National Self-Harm Network – all of which are fantastic organisations who work hard to ensure that the dialogue surrounding self-harm is both considerate and informed. There are also several NHS approved apps targeted at those who self-harm including distrACT and CalmHarm – the latter really helped me at one point during my life and I would highly recommend it.
Image courtesy of Raphaël Biscaldi