Adia Harris, Contributing Writer
The National Association for Mental Illness defines self-harm or self-injury as hurting yourself on purpose.
Guided by this general definition, it is unsurprising that most can speak to instances of self-injurious or at the very least, self-neglecting behaviors. We go through daily routines telling ourselves to keep our emotional struggles private and to only outwardly express signs of confidence and strength to ensure we are understood and respected by our peers.
But when does this go too far? Can living in a society that instructs us to protect our outward reputation rather than speaking out about how we feel reinforce self- harming behavior?
In an open-hearted recounting of how she continually masked inner emotional torment and listlessness caused by major depression in her book Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting, Terrie Williams speaks out on this ‘invisible weight’ and her self-injuring coping behaviors:
In the middle of all [this] action and all these people, I felt like I was in solitary confinement. And I began to cope with these feelings of emptiness and dread by numbing the pain with food...Like every drug, food gave me less relief each day, but I clung to it. It was the only thing in my life that could sooth me--the only crutch I have to help me limp around my intolerable feelings. (Williams, xiii)
Recent clinical studies have also shed an increasingly brighter light on the pervasiveness of self-harming behavior in the African-American community.
A study published by the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2010, reported the rate for self-harm among black women was 10.3 per 1,000 compared to 6.6 per 1,000 for whites in three major English cities. The lead author of this study, Dr. Jayne Cooper of the Centre for Suicide Prevention at the University of Manchester pointed to greater socioeconomic stressors coupled with the fact that black women are less likely to seek help after episodes of self-harm as the probable root cause behind these findings.
Another 2012 study out of the University of Mississippi Medical Center, that surveyed over 1,900 grade school youth, found black boys are more likely to deliberately self-harm than any other group along the lines of both race and gender, and seem to engage in this behavior at a younger age.
And yet, a too-common mantra embedded into the rhetoric of minority narratives seems to assert that our existence must always be plighted. We must withstand and accept trauma in our everyday life and “black pain” is merely inevitable. Thus, the suppression of fear and anxiety by any means necessary becomes the reality we shape for ourselves.
Research set aside, there is no easy discourse that allows us to mentally relinquish stress brought on by everyday life. People self-harm for different reasons and at different levels of severity, but almost always as a means of easing and validating emotional pain in a physical way.
In her book, Hidden Self Harm, psychoanalyst Maggie Turp, PH.D coins the term “cashas”— an acronym for culturally acceptable self-harming acts--to explain that self harm exists on a cultural continuum, and that our outward versus secreted expressions of emotional pain are often governed by cultural allowances and stigmas:
‘Cashas’ offer possibilities for physical self-soothing. When we see that a person’s cuticles are raw and bleeding we are prepared to look the other way...Consequently, behaviors that attract the self harm label always combine an element of self-inflicted illness or injury and an element of transgression, with the breaking of unspoken cultural rules. (Turp, 31)
Armed with this knowledge, it’s easier to understand how self-harming behaviors can be perpetuated. Many of us rely too heavily on our respective cashas as silent coping strategies. For individuals suffering severely from emotional trauma, socially taboo behaviors like cutting, biting and head banging become hidden means of relief when society instructs that speaking to the emotions behind the behaviors is also unacceptable.
It’s time for us to shatter this silence.
Along with a few online resources below, it is sound advice to anyone who self- harms or witnesses self-harm in others on any level: practice a level of compassion toward yourself and others to play an active role in shifting our culture from one of silent self-harm to one of outspoken self-care.
Williams, Terrie M. Black Pain: It Just Looks like We're Not Hurting New York: Scribner, 2008. Print.
Davis, Selena. "Greater Risk for Self-Harm in Young Black Women | Psych Central News." Psych Central News. N.p., 03 Sept. 2010. Web. 10 June 2016.
Mazurak, Jack. "Self-harm Study of Miss. Youth Finds Highest Rate in African-American Males." UMMC Main. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 June 2016.
Turp, Maggie. Hidden Self-harm: Narratives from Psychotherapy. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2003. Print.