Yesterday, my colleagues, myself and some people from other services went on Self-harm and Suicide training. It was both easier and more difficult than I thought it would be. Easier, because I wasn’t triggered and at no point did I feel I needed to leave the room. Harder, because the opinions expressed hit the nerves I knew they would.
“It’s attention seeking,” they said, referring to superficial wounds and people calling ambulances, “pure attention seeking. But you can’t say that to them, of course.”
Later on, I made the point that negativity is often associated with self-harm because of these very opinions. It was a bold move and one that could have left me exposed. But I felt it was the right move. Almost exactly fifteen minutes later? “Attention seeking,” a colleague repeated. “That’s all it is.” I sighed, though not audibly. Sighed because my opinion meant nothing. Sighed because, despite the trainer’s best efforts, this simple point was not sinking in.
The trainer herself made one grave error that made me shut off for a while. “It’s common for people to say that people who really want to kill themselves don’t talk about it. And that’s true…” I was amazed. This smart, empathetic woman cited the samaritans frequently- and yet ignored one of their major bustings of a harmful myth. My colleagues looked pleased with themselves. See? I could hear them thinking. Attention seeking.
I could have raised my hand and called her on it but I didn’t.
Sitting in that room with me, I know, we’re some sensitive and empathetic people, as well as several that had lost a loved one to suicide. I wondered how they felt about these opinions. Wondered if they were offended, or if they had quietly grown used to the myths and unpleasantness bandied about by others. I have never lost a friend or relative to suicide and I cannot imagine how they must have been feeling in that moment.
What I do know is how I myself, having been a self-harmer and attempted/ planned/ seriously considered suicide, felt. Hopeless and angry and saddened. Their thinking was beyond my understanding. I didn’t want to scream or shout as I have at other times and this itself concerned me. Have I resigned myself to the fact that to communicate the reality of self-harm to these people is futile? Have I become inured to their way of thinking? In becoming so, have I absorbed some of it to the point where some of my own empathy may ebb away? I hope not. I have built my image of myself on empathy, and to have it challenged was all but infuriating.
If I rolled up my sleeves and expressed these feelings, how would they react? “Oh we didn’t mean you,” they might say, through teeth gritted with disgust or embarrassment. “You’re not an attention seeker. It’s them.” Us and them, us and them. Again and again.
So I kept quiet and I believe my decision was wise. But in this blog and among my friends and even to strangers, I will continue to fight for a greater understanding. I need to believe that these negative perceptions can be overturned. I am not sure that the greatest problem facing mental health service users is stigma (there are budget cuts, for example). But it is a big problem, a problem which in itself leads to violence, inadequate care and shame. I do not exaggerate. So yes, in my life, I continue to fight and as I reach out to my audience I will battle against the stigma I faced today.