Words and images by Helena Fox
CN: Eating disorders,
Self-harm has been a large part of my life since I was 13. Spending over a decade in a single-sex pressure cooker of a school, self-harm became a commonly-discussed topic long before GCSEs, and before any of us had Facebook or smartphones.
A recent Newsbeat article reported NHS figures showing almost a two-fold increase in the number of girls admitted to hospital for self-harm between 1997 and 2017 (7,327 instances compared to 13,436). While these figures are deeply upsetting, I must say I agree with the NSPCC’s statement that they are “sadly unsurprising”.
While I was pleased to see other factors mentioned in the Newsbeat article, such as grief and emotional abuse, the focus turned, as always, to the role of social media. It’s certainly an easy target, and one that I don’t want to belittle. Indeed, the recent ‘clean eating’ internet fad can be triggering for my eating disorder, while I am aware that the mental health community, specifically on Instagram, has contributed to my warped worldview and exacerbated an already depressive outlook.
“Every article I read that pins the unhappiness of our snowflake generation on social media makes me clench my fists thinking about the pressure of school”
But I did not start self-harming because I didn’t look like Kayla Itsines. My body image was poor, but that was because I hit puberty and got boobs and hips before the majority of my peers, not because I was poring over airbrushed photographs of models; it was hard to feel confident when I had to use an online BMI calculator for biology homework and it told me I was obese (I wasn’t), or when a classmate asked me if I’d been “comfort eating”.
But far more than qualms about my looks, I started self-harming because I felt I needed to punish myself for what was on the inside. I thought I was stupid, used to being top of the class and feeling I was slipping, with GCSEs on the not-too-distant horizon. I thought I was unlikeable and isolated myself from my friends, and turned to self-harm as a companion. I started self-harming because I was ill, and something in my head told me it was what I had to do to survive.
And school. The atmosphere at school was unbearable, and every article I read that pins the unhappiness of our snowflake generation on social media makes me clench my fists thinking about the pressure of school, of exams from the age of 11 to practice for more exams which are a test run for – guess what? – another set of exams. I remember being too exhausted to do any homework after a school day, having to do it all at the weekend, churning out syllabus-approved answers over and over. I think of educational reforms slashing ‘soft’ subjects, and I can feel the anger rising in my gut.
And we were all so unhappy. Imagine sitting in the common room at lunchtime, with countless pairs of darting eyes examining just what everyone else is eating and a silent competition over who can eat less because otherwise their eating disorder will make them pay. Imagine being 15 and walking in on a conversation about who in the school year cuts themselves, and hearing your name at the end of a lengthy list, because it turns out it’s obvious that you self-harm and actually your pulled-down jumper sleeves didn’t deliver on the hiding place they promised.
Funnily enough, this atmosphere did not incite me to stop self-harming. It pushed me to go further, to live up to my image. Being told by school management to buy a long-sleeved top to cover my scars for the school play made me horrified at myself, and when your brain is wired like mine, being horrified at yourself is the perfect reason to self-harm. Being dismissed by mental health services for not being “sick enough” meant that, for my flawed thinking, bigger actions and more damage was the obvious action.
And all the while, feeling thick, not good enough, not ready for end-of-year exams, or your Geography project, or the Biology presentation you have due tomorrow, or the GCSE mocks you need to revise for, or the UCAS application you need to complete…I felt I would combust, and somehow, self-harm was a calming and dependable presence.
“I started self-harming because I was ill, and something in my head told me it was what I had to do to survive”
And for over four years, I found incredible solace and comfort in social media. As I said, social media has certainly had its negative effects on me. But finding other people who were hurting, yet somehow always ready to offer support and reassurance that things would be okay, no matter how little they believed that themselves, meant, quite simply, hope. It was companionship, and comfort, and knowing that I wasn’t alone and that maybe, somehow, things would be different someday.
And while things aren’t perfect, they certainly are different, and in a good way. And with distance between me and my scars, I can only say that no, these NHS figures aren’t surprising. If I had to relive my school years, I don’t doubt I’d end up self-harming all over again in an attempt to survive them. And while I don’t deny for a second that social media creates a plethora of complications and difficulties for young people, I warn against it being framed as the sole root of our very real and tangible unhappiness.
- Helena Fox has just finished her first year of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic; she loves Old Irish, performing in drag and listening to Kate Bush (not all at the same time –– yet).
If you are affected by self harm and want to seek support see the following resources:
- NHS pages on self-harm
- Samaritans – call 116 123 (open 24 hours a day), email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit your local Samaritans branch
- Mind – call 0300 123 3393 or text 86463 (9am to 6pm on weekdays)
- Harmless – email email@example.com
- National Self Harm Network forums
- YoungMinds Parents Helpline – call 0808 802 5544 (9.30am to 4pm on weekdays)