29 March 2006

A Safe Space For The Self-Harming Community

This news is a bit old by now, and I'm not sure if it made its way to the other side of the Atlantic, but it's been rattling around in my brain ever since the weekend. The gist of it is that some mental health professionals here in Britain want to create a "safe" environment for people to indulge in the increasingly popular adolescent (but open to fun-lovers of all ages!) pastime of "self-harming." In slightly less antiseptic language, this refers to the practice of slashing or cutting oneself, though I imagine it can extend to other damaging activities like banging one's head repeatedly against a wall or trying to win an argument on the internet.

I don't have a lot of personal experience in this field, though I once did toy with the idea of cutting my wrists while high on LSD because, at the age of 25, I had suddenly realised that I was hopelessly old and past it (don't all rush to agree). However, the razor blade had barely brushed my skin when I had an epiphany of sorts: slashing my wrists would hurt, and from then made a conscious choice to resolve any future existential dilemmas through means that didn't involve the deliberate seeking out of pain.

So at the risk of sounding flippant (a risk I'm apparently willing to take rather frequently), the attraction of slicing and dicing yourself, but I've heard enough horror stories to know that it's distressingly common. A psychotherapist I know told me of one girl who had to be restrained pretty much constantly; she's jumped through windows, smashed mirrors so she could use the shards of glass in lieu of a knife, all sharp instruments having long ago been removed from her home. "Shouldn't she be institutionalised?" I asked. "Probably," my friend said, "but the sad fact is that there's not nearly enough hospital space to accommodate all the self-harmers we encounter."

Apparently that's a problem all over Britain and America, but I wouldn't have thought this to be much of a solution:
He was supported by Jeremy Bore, vice-chairman of the RCN’s prison forum, who said: “We should give patients clean blades and a clean environment to self-harm and then access to good-quality dressings.

“My instinct is that it is better to sit with the patient and talk to them while they are self-harming. We should definitely give advice on safer parts of the body to cut. It could get to the stage where we could have a discussion with the patient about how deep the cuts were going to be and how many.”
Yes, that sounds like a very interesting discussion indeed, but a discussion I'd be more interested in having would be about how far we go in attempting to normalise any and all behaviours. I suppose it's just a logical outgrowth of cultural relativism, but rather than simply accept self-destructive activities like cutting, drug addiction, and eating disorders as personal choices that need to be understood rather than proscribed, maybe it's time we questioned why such pathologies (and sorry if that's un-PC or insufficiently respectful, but they are pathologies) are so much more prevalent in the most privileged and allegedly enlightened Western societies. In huge swathes of the world, people struggle to obtain sufficient food, warmth and shelter to survive; in the West, where not just survival, but comfortable survival is a given, vast numbers of people, especially young people, seem to react to that privilege by seeking ever more elaborate ways to damage themselves.

Okay, maybe I don't have any easy answers (or any answers at all) to why that might be or what we might do about it. But there has to be some point at which we say about at least some kinds of behaviour: "No, that's not normal and not acceptable," rather than, "Here, let me give you a hand with that razor blade."

1 comment:

Wesley said...

Saying it's a reaction to privilege is a bit disingenuous, though I'm not sure that's the point you were making. Most cutters do not idly take up the pastime; if anything, they're concretizing psychological pain, often the result of physical and sexual abuse. I agree that giving them clean blades is not going to solve the problem any more than giving heroin addicts clean needles is solving their addiction (though to be fair, in that case it does help prevent the spread of disease).

If you're saying that our privileged society has an undiscussed dark side of abuse and psychological pain, I couldn't agree with you more.