Stigma of self-harming leads people to shun sufferers, Samaritans report says

Some people began self-harming when they were just four years of age

Eilish O'Regan

Stigma directed towards people who self-harm can affect their chances of renting a home, finding a job or entering a new relationship as some struggle with the behaviour for a lifetime, a survey from Samaritans Ireland has revealed.

The study is the first of its kind in Ireland and shows how stigma can silence or shame and drive those who struggle with self-harm into secrecy.

It reveals the pain of some people who began self-harming at as young as four years of age.

Samaritans defines self-harm as “any deliberate act of self-poisoning or self-injury carried out without suicidal intent”.

A number of people have self-harmed for 50 years, underlining how supports and coping mechanisms need to be aimed towards all age groups.

The stark picture is contained in the report, “An Open Secret: Self-harm and stigma in Ireland and Northern Ireland”.

It brings to light how people who self-harm believe others have a lower opinion of them.

Self-harm is mentioned in a call to Samaritans Ireland volunteers on average once every hour.

“Our findings are staggering and reveal that society in general frequently inflicts stigma and its effect on those who self-harm is profound,” said Mark Kennedy, assistant director of Samaritans Ireland.

“Nobody should have to bear the stigma and discrimination outlined in this report.”

The research involved 769 adults from across the island of Ireland, with input from people with experience of self-harm, their loved ones or care-givers, healthcare professionals and members of the public with no connection to the issue.

The report explains how people would remove themselves from everyday scenarios to avoid someone who self-harmed, such as car sharing, new relationships and employment. It also unmasks how people who self-harm believed others had a lower opinion of them, including healthcare professionals.

The survey reveals that while 77pc of all participants would be willing to help someone who self-harmed, 64pc would not car-pool with them and 56pc would not rent an apartment to them.

Some reported self-harming from as young as four years old, while others did not start until they were in their 50s.

The majority of those who self-harmed reported their behaviours lasted an average of 13 years. Others struggled with it for a lifetime.

Family, friends and care-givers felt most affected by their own thoughts and emotions related to someone in their life who self-harms.

The portrayal of self-harm in the media, film and TV significantly affects society’s perception of the issue.

Health professionals believe they provide warm and understanding care to patients, despite some individuals expressing the opposite view.

Of those with no first-hand lived experience of self-harm, over half admitted they would not enter a relationship if a prospective partner showed signs.

Nearly three in 10 said it would influence their willingness to hire someone.

As many as 80pc felt they could not speak to their employer about self-harm for fear of judgment or stigma.

More than four in 10 admitted that knowing about or seeing visible signs of self-harm would affect their perception of someone.

However, 76pc said they would feel comfortable if a close friend or family member confided they self-harmed.

A spokeswoman for Samaritans Ireland said that while self-harm is a complex issue that poses a high-risk factor for suicide, it does not necessarily result in suicidal thoughts, which can affect the support people require.

Anyone who is self-harming or is affected by the findings of the report can call Samaritans on freephone 116 123 or email