Rethinking mental illness

We need to keep having conversations about mental health (Source: Giuseppe Milo via Flickr).

By Sarah Harris

Published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, a controversial new paper has claimed that letting patients in mental health units self harm would be less distressing than stopping them completely. Experts have argued that they should be allowed to harm and injure themselves to “reduce their feelings of powerlessness”.

The writer of the paper has suggested that patients who are in no immediate danger could be given sterile cutting implements and education in safer harming, in order to avoid blood poisoning and infection.

I can’t remember exactly when I started suffering from mental health problems but it’s been a while now. By the time I was in my second year of university, I had been on two different types of antidepressants and had been hospitalised for attempted suicide.

Most of my friends would tell you I am a bubbly and happy person. My teachers throughout school would always comment on how I was ‘always smiling.’ So when I was 18 and I told my parents and close friends that I thought I was suffering from depression and had been self-harming, they were pretty shocked and hurt.

A lot of them felt like that had failed me in some way, as it took me so long to confess my problems to them. What they didn’t understand was that it felt like it was out of my control.

If you’ve ever suffered from mental health problems you’ll understand what I mean but a lot of people who never have may not understand this. “Can you really not control it?” asked one of my friends after I’d been released from hospital. For me personally, I didn’t self-harm for the attention or sympathy like many people assumed I did. I did it because it took my mind away from the mental agony I was in, just for a little while.

Suffering from depression isn’t all sadness, you may have seen that meme about how ‘depression is like watching paint dry’ and I can personally say that it’s the most accurate thing I have seen about the condition. It took me half a years worth of counselling before I stopped self harming. It would be a lie if I said that over the last four years I haven’t broken the promise I made to myself when I said I would never do it again. I have weak moments just like most people do, but over time I’ve found coping mechanisms and solutions that have made things better.

Personally I don’t think mental health experts are right with their suggestions. Isn’t the point of being institutionalised that experts can help prevent you from hurting yourself? It may not seem like it at the time but after I recover from a depressive episode, I usually regret my decisions after, and I know a lot of people who have self-harmed in the past feel the same way.

Being institutionalised doesn’t mean all your problems will be magically fixed but it does mean you have constant support and advice on how best to battle with your mental health issues.

I asked a few of my housemates who had suffered from their own mental health problems what they thought about the issue and some had opposing views to me. “It’s like giving a heroin addict methadone, it’s better to ween them off it than go cold turkey; that can cause problems within itself” one friend said.

I understand where my housemate is coming from and it does make sense to me but I still don’t agree with the fact that medically trained professionals aren’t stopping you from making decisions you’ll probably regret when you’re stable.

Further, who is to say what counts as self-harm? A lot of people who suffer from mental health conditions could turn to comfort eating, or disorders such as anorexia or bulimia in order to find some solace, but what can doctors really do about that? Would they consider indulging in greasy and rich food the equivalent to self-harm considering it may not have an immediate affect but could definitely be impacting your physical health in the long term?

Mental health problems are different for each person and each person must be assessed by experts in their own way. For some people, it may be easier to stop self harming all together, but for others who are heavily dependent on the relief they get from committing the act it may be more difficult.

I know the idea of speaking to a professional about your issues may seem daunting to a lot of people but talking to a professional makes things a lot better. The university offers help and advice to anybody suffering and professionals can be found in the student counselling and Wellbeing Centre located on Park Place.

I can assure you that if you do find yourself in a dark place and need someone to turn to straight away, remember you can always ring the Samaritans or other support lines.

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