Last night I saw a Facebook post announcing a therapist’s upcoming class on “Teen Self-Injury: Working Toward Healthy Coping Skills.” No, not something I’m going to link you to here. I looked through the teaser information about this course and sighed. We have work to do if we want to support deep healing for people who live with Self-Directed Violence (SDV).
The information began with typical fear-mongering about how horrifying it is for people to discover that others, in this case young people, live with self-injury. Is it troubling that many people need self-injury as a way of coping? Of course. Yet making this about the “drama” of self-harm, rather than understanding the prevalence of trauma and how people cope, IS harmful. Was trauma mentioned? No. Were psychiatric diagnoses mentioned? Yes. This particular person opted to link self-harm with depression. Not as a means of understanding a person’s life but as a way of connecting psych labels. And people who live with SDV tend to get a collection of those…
If we only focus on a person’s behavior, and especially if judge it, how can we truly promote understanding and create an environment that supports healing? This clinician, as a representative of the majority, focused only on promoting a training that will teach people how to make people change, he said from “unhealthy” to “healthy.” Sounds good superficially right? But this is the most common destructive response to people who live with SDV. Whether by blatant actions such as restraining people (tying them down and/or forcing powerful numbing drugs on them) or subtle ones (such as shaming, demeaning, or leveraging people) the use of coercion is never helpful. Never. Ever.
The experience of trauma results in disempowerment and disconnection. Much more on this to come. But please consider what creates a healing environment… empowerment and connection. Not easy, but yes, that simple. Attempts to control a person’s behavior… disempower and alienate people. Doesn’t matter if you think it is “for someone’s own good” or have various initials behind your name.
The most disturbing sentence of the promotional piece? That was easy to find: “Self-injury is an unhealthy coping mechanism that can lead to an increased risk of suicide.” Wrong. No citations. Dramatic. Terrifying those who care about someone who lives with SDV, right? That is the sentence that sets up the justification of coercion. The “OMG, we need to stop the cutting because it will lead to death!” And then we can therefore begin to justify doing just about anything to a person to force them to change. And what does that do? Adds huge piles of additional trauma to a person’s life, compounding the challenges that are already there. And then… as you add disempowerment and increase the experience of disconnection? Then I am afraid for you. Not because you cut or burn or punch yourself. But because you are isolated, judged, shamed and alienated. Then living gets that much harder… That is why we are here.
And the link between SDV and suicide? Having a coping mechanism that, while not necessarily bringing healing, allows you to survive your challenges in the moment, reduces the possibility of suicide. More on that later. Please think about this. And please think very critically of what is written about this topic. What might sound helpful… may not be.