Thoughts on the importance of Instagram banning graphic images of self harm and why a much larger discussion needs to happen

This was originally posted on my new blog, but I felt it was important to share it here as well.

It is very rare that I have put a trigger warning on a post, but considering the subject matter, I think it would be appropriate in this case. So if you are triggered by discussions of self harm or suicide, please take care of yourself and click out of this post now.

This was not a post I thought I would be writing today, especially in the midst of an incredibly rushed move when I should really be packing, but I read this article from the BBC while drinking my morning coffee and felt compelled to write.

So, brace yourselves, this is going to be one of those posts that gets deeply personal, emotional and raw. If you’re not up for that right now, feel free not to read it, but please come back to it later unless you think it will be triggering to you in any way. But if you don’t want to read it because you think this is an issue that doesn’t effect you, or never will, please read it anyway, because as a society, this is everyone’s problem, all you need to do to realize that to is look at the alarming statistics of self harm, which will be linked at the end of the post.

Somehow, until today, I hadn’t heard of Molly Russell, but learning of her tragic suicide in 2017 and of her family’s fight to get graphic images of self harm removed from social media platforms such as Instagram touched me on a deeply personal level. I did not know Molly Russell, but at the same time, I’ve known many girls like her, and I was once like her too.

People who are following from my previous blog may remember me mentioning my history of self harm in passing, or noticed old scars in some of my photos. This was something that used to be a very big part of my life for many, many years. It is a painful history that I am reminded of every day, because the countless scars on my body make it impossible to forget, but it is history for me.

I last self harmed in October of 2013 and it alarms me to think that it was a part of my life even that recently, but at the same time I’m proud of how long it has been, because I never thought I would get to this point, I don’t know that anyone else in my life did either.

The first time I can remember self harming was when I was eight years old. The internet wasn’t really a thing regular people had access to at that point and self harm wasn’t really something that was talked about or at least not in any way that I would have been aware of at that age. I didn’t know what I was doing, I just knew that I was in pain and filled with emotions that felt completely unbearable and overwhelming and I needed to get them out of my body somehow, as if the emotions themselves would kill me if they weren’t released. I don’t remember if I thought this was normal, I just know it felt like the only thing I could do, and it became a compulsion from that point on. If the feelings became unbearable, I felt had to hurt myself in some way to make them stop.

It makes me sad to think of that little girl. Terribly, terribly sad.

I was about thirteen or fourteen years old the first time I saw images of self harm anywhere, and I still remember them vividly. It was a Seventeen magazine article and I can still see the images in my mind as clearly as if they were right in front of me. Somehow I didn’t directly connect this to the form of self harm I had been doing since I was small, but I was both horrified and fascinated by the thought (and images) of girls my age cutting themselves to release pain. It wasn’t that long before I started doing the same.

Would this have happened without reading that article, seeing those images? Maybe, maybe not, but knowing myself and my reasons for self harming, I think it was just a natural progression. It almost doesn’t matter who or what lit the match, the house was always going to go up in flames.

So why does it matter that graphic images of self harm be removed from the internet? Well, I’m going to let you in on a bit of a secret that doesn’t often get talked about, that people who struggle with self-destructive illnesses such as self harm or eating disorders don’t like to admit.

Sometimes we use images like these to purposely trigger ourselves.

I know I did, especially once I started discovering websites that displayed them.* To this day, even though I haven’t self harmed in years, this is a very weird thing to admit. It feels wrong to say it. It feels as shameful to admit now as it would have back when I was actively harming myself. Looking at these images can become part of the compulsion, part of the illness, and be just as destructive and damaging. It can push you to do even more harm to yourself, or more extreme forms of harm that you may not have done otherwise.

There is a real problem with the stigma around self harm, which can sadly be the most damaging when it is coming from those within the medical and mental health community itself. All too often it is the people who are supposed to be there to help who are are the most open in their disgust or disdain or lack of empathy for the people who are suffering, and this can lead to extremely harmful treatment (some of the worst of which I actually won’t be discussing in this post, because I fear I may already be testing the limits of how much people are willing to read on this topic).

There always seems to be a question of who is “worthy” of treatment, who is “really sick” or “faking it for attention.” This doesn’t help, in fact, it makes things so much worse. You might get told, when you finally admit to harming yourself, when you finally show someone your wounds or your scars, that it isn’t that bad, that you’re just doing it for attention, or get compared to others who harm themselves in “worse” ways as if your pain is less real or worthy of care. Or you might be told that what you are doing is disgusting, that there are people with “real” illnesses, who are “really sick”, who deserve help more than you do. Either way, in these scenarios, your pain isn’t taken seriously. You are invalidated. You are shamed. Deemed unworthy of help. And inside you are screaming. It took so much courage and strength to ask for help in the first place. You know something is terribly wrong, you know you need help. So you might push yourself further. You might up the ante. You might be left feeling like no one will help you otherwise.

I can only think of two illnesses where this is such a huge problem, and they are two that disproportionately effect girls and women – self harm and eating disorders. No one should feel they have to make themselves even “sicker” just to be deemed worthy of treatment. No one should feel they have to prove the legitimacy of their illness and suffering. The sad fact is that illnesses, especially mental illnesses, that effect women and girls more than men and boys tend to get much less research funding. Which is really bad when mental health issues in general get so little research funding as it is. Resources, especially good, evidence based resources, are hard to access, may not be available where you live, might have alarmingly long waiting lists and very few spaces available for patients, or be prohibitively expensive for patients or their families. From what I have read this seems to be true just about everywhere, and I know it is a huge problem in my own country.

Even in a country like mine, that has universal health care, I still see way too many articles written about desperate parents appealing for help for their children because their province or city doesn’t have treatment for illnesses such as eating disorders. Or the treatment they have access to is woefully ineffective. Self harm, eating disorders and addiction are often co-morbid illnesses, but most eating disorder programs or addiction treatment programs require that you abstain from self harm before and during treatment, and if you self harm while in treatment, you can get kicked out. When waiting lists for treatment are usually at least a year long due to shortages of beds, this can be devastating at best, a death sentence at worst.

Treatment for self harm in hospitals, at least in my day, often revolved around behavior modification. If you don’t know what that means, I will explain it in the most basic way: if you behave (don’t cause problems, comply with whatever medication or treatment they prescribe, refrain from harming yourself, etc) you get rewarded with privileges (being allowed to wear your own clothes, have your own belongings, make phone calls, leave the ward first with others and then by yourself, see family, etc). If you don’t, you get punished (confined to your room, made to wear hospital pajamas, have your belongings taken away, phone and off-ward privileges removed, not allowed to have visitors, etc, until they decide you’ve earned those privileges back).

Behavior modification programs are a terrible and usually ineffective form of treatment for disorders that are already self-punishing and often a coping mechanism for some form of trauma or PTSD. For people who are self-destructive as a method for coping with the pain of abuse, for example, all it does is continue the cycle of abuse and punishment. It confirms what you may already think – that you are bad, unworthy of love or care, that you are the cause of the abuse you suffered, that it is your fault. That it wouldn’t happen if you were just good enough.

This post has become about so much more than images of self-harm, but there are so many problems when it comes to how this entire illness is treated, that it would feel really wrong to just say “Instagram is banning graphic images of self harm, great, this will fix everything!” It is a good thing to do, I’m glad they’re doing it and hope other social media platforms do the same, because it is so important, but there is a huge discussion that doesn’t seem to really be happening: about how desperately evidence based treatment is needed, how desperately research funding is needed, how absolutely essential quicker access to good, affordable treatment is. People are silently screaming for help, and they are being let down in such a devastating and heartbreaking way.

I cried reading the BBC article this morning. I’m in tears again now writing all of this. Molly needed help, serious help. The girls I knew in and out of hospitals needed serious help. None of these girls had to die. Too many of them did, and do, all the time. It breaks my heart.

In the last year of my mother’s life, as she sat in a taxi following the ambulance that was taking me to the hospital because I had overdosed, she had to come to terms with the fact that I might die before her. By my own hand. And it might not even be intentional. She had doctors telling her that I would most likely be dead within a few years and that it would probably be an accident. Because at that point, the self harm had become so extreme that accidental death from it was a huge possibility. I wish so much that she could see me now, that she could see how far I’ve come, that the last year and months of her life hadn’t been spent having to worry about losing me. I wish that no one in my family had been put through that.

Sometimes I wish that I had never started harming myself. I wish that I could wipe away the scars and the history in my medical charts that damns me every time I try to get any form of help, whether medical or otherwise.** I can’t change these things, but I can wake up every day and fight and each day is another day that I’m not self-harming. Every year I’m alive is another year I’ve outlived the life expectancy the doctors gave me.

There is nothing special about me though, it wasn’t getting the right treatment that got me here (because I didn’t), it wasn’t that I fought harder than Molly or anyone else (because, once again, I didn’t). I don’t even really know what it was that made it so I was able to quit, because it was so many things. It was big things and small things and the weight of it all. It was being tired. Sick and tired, of this being my life. It was realizing that self harm didn’t even “work” anymore and hadn’t for years – it didn’t make the feelings go away, it just made everything worse. It was making a promise to myself that I would never do it again, telling myself it was not an option, no matter how hard things got, it would never be an option again. And I had to do it all alone, because treatment, let alone effect treatment, was next to impossible to access. That shouldn’t have been the case.

If social media platforms like Instagram are being held partially responsible for Molly’s death, we also need to hold the medical and mental health system at least as responsible.*** I don’t know what kind of treatment, if any, Molly was getting before her death, but I know of too many cases where either the person wasn’t in treatment, or the treatment was grossly inadequate. Friends of mine have died for this very reason. I almost did myself.

These things need to be talked about. The discussion needs to happen, and it can’t just stop at talking and hand wringing over what to do with these kids who are hurting themselves. We can’t forget that these “kids” grow up to be adults who still need help just as badly, but tend to fall through the cracks of the system way too often and way too easily. And we can never forget that far too often people who suffer with these types of disorders end up like Molly. And every single time that happens, it is tragic. It’s a loss. It’s a horrible waste of life, of opportunity, of a future that can never happen, of happiness that can never be felt. These people deserve so much better. We as a society can do so much better by them and their loved ones. No one should ever feel like suicide is the only option they have left.

My heart goes out to the Russell family and anyone else who has lost a loved one to suicide. Having lost people who were close to me because of suicide, I know this pain all too well, and it is a huge part of what compelled me to write this today. To honor my friends, and anyone else whose life has been cut short like this. I just wish I could do more.

If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide or self harm, please reach out for whatever help you can get. I know a lot of times in this post I spoke negatively about some of the treatment available or the mental health profession in general, but I would never want to discourage anyone from getting treatment or therapy, because it truly can help and it can save your life. Not all treatment or experiences with it will be negative and if you have had a negative treatment experience, don’t give up, keep fighting, there will be treatment out there for you, there will be something that will help. Talk to someone you trust, and if you don’t feel like you have anyone you can turn to, you can always call a suicide prevention hotline and speak to someone who has been trained to provide informed and empathetic help. Here is a list of international suicide prevention hotlines.

Please don’t think you have to suffer in silence, there is always another option, you are never truly alone. You matter, your life matters, and it does get better, though it may not feel like it right now, there is always hope. Please keep fighting.

Some further reading:

Self injury, Self harm Statistics and Facts – Healthyplace.com

Self Harm – National Alliance on Mental Health

5 Self Harm Myths We Need to Stop Believing – The Mighty

“Why the diseases that cause the most harm don’t always get the most research money” – The Washington Post, July 17th, 2015 (doesn’t mention self harm specifically, but does mention suicide and eating disorders)

*This is part of the reason I try to be really careful and responsible with the photos I post, I don’t want to potentially trigger others. I’m also acutely aware of how these types of scars can be viewed by people who don’t self harm as well, it’s impossible for me not to be, as a person existing in the world with the scars that I have. This post is already far too long to talk about the kinds of reactions I’m used to getting when people who don’t know me see my scars, but this is why I still tend to hide them in public all these years later. Though I always try to be responsible about the photos I post where scars may be visible, unfortunately it isn’t always possible to hide them completely – plus, honestly, after almost 30 years of hiding, I’m getting kind of tired of feeling like I have to, but it’s a bit of a balancing act trying to make sure that no matter what, I don’t potentially cause harm.

** One weird side to these wishes is knowing that if it weren’t for the level of stigma and often hurtful reactions I get to my scars and my history, I probably wouldn’t even care so much that the scars themselves are there. They are a part of me. And I’m not ashamed of my past or what I went through, it is part of what made me the woman I am today and I am proud of who I am.

***I just wanted to say I don’t blame Molly’s parents for using these platforms as a starting point for change, or for partially blaming social media for Molly’s death. It isn’t their responsibility to try and change the other things I’ve addressed in this post and I know that the medical and mental health system itself is something that feels beyond everyone’s ability to change or control. I stand behind the Russell family 100% and am really glad that they were able to accomplish this, because it in and of itself is huge and incredibly important. I just wanted to use my little voice, for what it’s worth, to try and open up a broader discussion or at least get people thinking about this a bit more.

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