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Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Shame, stigma and taboo of self-harm

Unfortunately it is common for self-harm and mental illness to be seen as shameful and treated as taboo subjects. Fear of being stigmatised may prevent people from accessing help. The parents and carers we interviewed talked to us about these concerns.

Scars
Several parents were worried about their child’s scars and the effect they might have on their life in future. Jim felt very sad about the scars on his daughter’s abdomen and feared this would cause difficulties when she had to explain them to a future partner. Sarah Z and Nick found their daughter’s scars distressing and couldn’t understand why young women wanted to damage their bodies. Jackie explained to her daughter that people might label her: ‘If you’re going to walk around with permanent scars on your arms, it’s not a good look and you’re judged before you open your mouth.’ Some of the young people tried to hide their scars but others were not ashamed. 
 

Jo-Ann’s daughter worried that people would see her scars, but Jo-Ann herself was not ashamed by self-harm.

Jo-Ann’s daughter worried that people would see her scars, but Jo-Ann herself was not ashamed by self-harm.

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Most people that know us know. They, they know that I’ve self-harmed and they, and they know that she does. She’s more private about it than I am but, for me, I don’t see I don’t see shame in it. I don’t see anything to be ashamed about. And so, you know, she tends to wear long sleeves. She does pull her sleeves up sometimes but then worries that people have seen her scars and I haven’t really come across people judging you. I think people are more compassionate and maybe would like to know more but I myself, can’t, you know, obviously, I can’t speak for [my daughter] but I don’t, I don’t think that she’s had any problems. But I’ve always been open about it and, as I say, I, I’ve never come across anybody that’s condemned me
 

Audrey is glad her husband’s scars are visible because they remind him he doesn’t want to go back to that bad time in his life.

Audrey is glad her husband’s scars are visible because they remind him he doesn’t want to go back to that bad time in his life.

Age at interview: 30
Sex: Female
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But with regards to his harming, he has got permanent scarring on his legs and I mean the scars haven’t healed, it was only five months ago and there were some pretty brutal, for want of a better word, cuts that he gave himself and they’re a constant reminder of where, like what he did. As much as I hate seeing it, I think it’s good that I see it. I think it’s good that he sees it because it’s a reminder of, where he was, that we don’t want to get back to that part of his life. We don’t want to go back to that area and, as he says, he doesn’t want me to have to go through that again. He doesn’t want for himself to be that low that he feels that he couldn’t speak to anyone and he certainly doesn’t ever want our children to witness that. He never, ever wants our children to walk in one day, neither do I. I don’t ever want my children to walk in and have to see their dad in the state that he was in. I mean it’s just, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. That’s every mother’s worst nightmare.
 

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Bernadette’s son hurt himself in a place where the scars could easily be seen ‘almost like a badge’. He said it showed how he felt, that he’d ruined his life. Later he wanted to hide the scars so they wouldn’t affect his employment prospects. Nicky’s daughter covered her scars with an expensive tattoo – she told her mother it would remind her not to cut as she would damage the artwork. Susan Y was angry about her daughter’s attitude: ‘She’d do PE without any conscious effort that she needed to cover them up and she isn’t even ashamed, so we were angry with her for not even being ashamed. But that wasn’t about her, that was about us.’ Susan said she wasn’t ashamed of her daughter, but wanted to protect her from being judged by other people.

Shame, stigma, taboo
Some parents spoke to us about shame and stigma. Sharon was ashamed of her own self-harm and kept it secret. She was afraid it would affect her life insurance. Nick said, ‘It’s almost a closet type thing that I guess people are fairly ashamed to talk about amongst their peers. You wouldn’t want your daughter to be known as a self-harmer.’ Jim told us his daughter’s self-harm was ‘all done very secretly and privately because she’s quite ashamed of it and she hates it.’ Joanna said, ‘It was such a taboo that I didn’t even think about searching on the internet, what should you do if your child self-harms? I just thought my daughter is probably the only one.’ A counsellor helped her to understand more about self-harm, and her relationship with her daughter improved. Jackie thought that cutting was a very taboo subject because people have such strong opinions on it. She said no one has the right to judge, because everyone’s experience is different.
 

Liz felt ashamed that she couldn't help her daughter more.

Liz felt ashamed that she couldn't help her daughter more.

Age at interview: 52
Sex: Female
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Within the wider circle of friends I have to say, if I’m honest with myself, there is an element of shame because it’s like I, it’s almost like a weakness. Why could I not help her more? Why did she have to do that? Why could I not?

And I’m sure they wouldn’t think that but that’s how I think they would think. So yeah, close circle of friends, yes, but not very many.
Several people stressed the importance of trying to break down taboos. Susan Y thinks mental health issues should be discussed in schools; Sandra believes that more media attention would reduce taboos and encourage funding of prevention initiatives. Philip and Mary decided not to hide their son’s problems. ‘I feel that one shouldn’t stigmatise mental trouble,’ Mary told us. ‘It’s very important that those who are having to cope with it also ‘fess up and say “Yes, well, this is just an illness.’ Audrey thought it was wrong that self-harm should be stigmatised: ‘Self-harming is a very hush-hush thing, which I think is a shame because if it was discussed a little more, I don’t think there would be such a stigma of people with self-harm.’ Liz’s daughter hid her self-cutting at first because she was so ashamed of it, but when she became less ashamed her self-harming was more open and easier for the family to deal with.
 

Audrey hopes that by not being ashamed to talk about self-harm she can help other people and lessen stigma.

Audrey hopes that by not being ashamed to talk about self-harm she can help other people and lessen stigma.

Age at interview: 30
Sex: Female
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Don’t ever be ashamed of talking about self-harming. Don’t ever be ashamed of admitting what you’re going through because I’ll guarantee there’s about fifty other folk out there in the same boat and if by doing this I can at least help one person, raise awareness or help them understand better or help them to acknowledge what’s going on, then I’ll be happy because there’s so much, as I said before, there’s so much of a stigma attached with mental health and with self-harming and it shouldn’t be like that, not in this day and age.
 

Philip thinks it’s important to be open about his son’s problems.

Philip thinks it’s important to be open about his son’s problems.

Age at interview: 59
Sex: Male
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And have you found any difficulty in talking about your son’s harming. I mean some people have said, “Oh, we think it’s, you know, we’re ashamed to mention it to anyone.” But?

No, I think we, I mean most of our friends are intelligent and broad minded enough to be able to talk about pretty much anything I think. It’s I think it would be a shame, it would be a thing to be ashamed of if I knew that I’d in some way caused it. Maybe I have, but I don’t know it and it’s I think it’s more important to be open about it in the hope that it will help somebody else to be open about it, rather than hide it. There’s no, we could hide it. We could pretend we don’t have a son at all. He doesn’t go out that much. He lives upstairs in his bedroom for ninety five per cent of his day and we could just pretend he’s not there and, “Oh no, he went off to Australia. We hear, hear of him occasionally.” But it’s rather more use I think to say, well, we’ve got to explain why we’re reluctant to accept invitations and we never seem to go away and rather than make something up, we might as well.

Yes, yes.

Tell the truth. We, I’ve never had anybody say anything unkind to us about it and I’ve, these days I’m relaxed about it. One of the things about it becoming boring is that it is sort of you stop thinking of it as shocking and I, therefore, just, you know, if it comes up I mention it.

Last reviewed December 2017.
 

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