The Male Experience of Self-Harm
There is a lot of stigma surrounding self-harm. This is no doubt due to the fact that it is poorly understood. Anyone who currently self-harms, or has done in the past, may feel deeply ashamed and embarrassed about it.
Because of the way that self-harm is stereotyped and judged, many men who have experience with self-harm find this stigma particularly difficult to deal with. Like with mental health issues in general, men tend to be far less open about revealing these signs of struggle.
Men self-harm too
A stereotype of self-harm is that it’s something only angsty teenage girls do. This behaviour is also seen as a hallmark of emo or goth subculture. Now, it’s true that adolescents in these subcultures self-harm more than others and women more than men. Nonetheless, it’s still something that very large numbers of men struggle with. In fact, in the UK, 1 in 4 young men self-harm as a way to cope with their mental health issues.
Male patterns of self-harm
When it comes to different types of self-injury, women tend to cut or burn themselves more than men. However, this doesn’t mean men don’t also use cutting as a coping mechanism. Many do. Unfortunately, the stereotypes about cutting – as a thing that teenage girls do for attention – can make men feel emasculated if they have harmed themselves in this way. They may perceive themselves as ‘girly’, ‘weak’, a ‘wimp’, a ‘sissy’ or ‘overdramatic’.
Rather than resort to cutting, men are more likely to self-harm by punching walls, getting into fights, over-exercising, poisoning themselves, and abusing drugs and alcohol. Drinking heavily is especially problematic as it can make your depression a lot worse. Plus, it lowers your inhibitions, which could increase your chances of making an impulsive decision to harm yourself in other ways.
Changing the narrative around self-harm
There is nothing pathetic about self-harming, regardless of your gender or age. Self-harm is a complex issue and happens for a number of reasons. It can be a form of self-punishment (influenced by low self-esteem, self-criticism or self-hatred), a need for control when things feel out of control, or relief from emotional pain by means of physical pain. Lawrence Alexander, a 37-year-old strategy director at a marketing company, told AskMen:
“Burning myself with cigarettes was a reaction to feeling overwhelmed thoughts. At the time I couldn't articulate why, it felt intuitive. In retrospect I can see that pain stopped me from thinking, as did alcohol and drugs.”
We need to have an honest conversation about self-harm. This will help to dispel the misconceptions and help men to realize that they’re not alone. Part of the problem, though, is that many men feel deeply uncomfortable about telling others about their mental health issues. Ryan Williams, 19, says:
“I definitely don't feel comfortable discussing mental health with male friends. Even if they did understand, or experienced issues themselves, nine times out of 10 they probably wouldn't open up, which just leaves you feeling a bit silly.”
We need to break down the barriers that stop men from speaking up and seeking help. You can be part of the solution in a variety of ways. If you self-harm or live with self-harm scars but have never told anyone about it, you may find that talking about it can help people to understand or inspire others to be more open about their struggles. Like Ryan, you may worry about your friend will react. In this case, writing about your experience (and keeping it private) – or talking to a professional – may help you get to the bottom of your issues.
For the men out there who have never self-harmed or don’t understand it, simply trying your best to be non-judgmental and empathetic can make a world of difference to a friend or loved one who struggles with self-injury. If we can view self-harm with a bit more compassion, this will help to remove the unnecessary shame that is attached to it.
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I'm a freelance writer who is interested in mindfulness, mental health and the evolving concept of masculinity.