Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Shame, stigma and taboo

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.

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. 
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.
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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.

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