According to the professors, the idea of self-harm was ‘unfathomable’ prior to 1982. It wasn’t until a student of Peter’s admitted to his own self-harming habit, that the couple began to take an academic interest in what was gradually becoming a cultural phenomenon.
In 2000, the two finally decided to launch a project that would, in 11 years time, become a published book.
Over a period of 10 years, the Alders interviewed 135 self-harmers, 50% of which were teenagers. Results showed that the majority of self-harmers tended to give up the habit before the end of their 20s. According to Patti, “there tends to be a natural turning point where people drop off. As you get older, there are fewer self harmers.”
The Alders were surprised to find that occasionally the condition would worsen with age and continue right through to the 40s and 50s. Because self-harm is more commonly portrayed as an outcome of teen-angst or attention grabbing, adults with the condition have had to face additional stigma.
85% of the people interviewed for the study were women. The Alders believe that whereas men tend to externalise their emotions with anger and violence, women tend to internalise their feelings. The build up of repressed emotion can lead to self-destructive behaviours such as self-harm.
At the beginning of the study, the focus was more on severe mental disorders such as schizophrenia. As they learned more about the subject, the sociologists realised that a huge number of people used self-harm simply to deal with everyday stresses.
Patti writes that self-harm “tends to lead to the lessening of tension, euphoria, improved sexual feelings, diminution of anger, satisfaction of self-punishment urges, security, uniqueness, manipulation of others, and relief from feelings of depression, loneliness, loss, and alienation”
The most common form of self-harm was found to be cutting, however it ranged in severity from mild scratching to breaking bones.
The Alders were fascinated to find that, during the mid-90s, self-harm became something of a craze or, as they now describe it, a ‘faddish’. Rock musicians like Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson began to cut themselves on stage as part of their controversy-stirring performances, and public figures like Princess Diana, Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie began to admit to their own self-harm habits.
With the emergence of the internet came self-harm forums. Here people could share their experiences and anxieties with others and finally open up about a subject previously shrouded in stigma.
Although self-harm has become somewhat embedded in popular-culture, it remains a serious problem. It is always advisable to consult a GP if you or a loved one has been self-harming. If you would like to find out how counselling could help with self-harm, please visit our self-harm factsheet.
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