New research from Samaritans Ireland has found stigma towards people who self-harm can impact on their ability to rent an apartment, find a job or enter a new relationship.
The study - An Open Secret: Self-Harm and Stigma in Ireland and Northern Ireland - is the first of its kind in Ireland and highlights that stigma has the power to silence, shame, and push those who struggle with self-harm into secrecy.
It found that people started to self-harm as young as four-years-old, with others self-harming for over 50 years, showing that supports and coping mechanisms need to be aimed towards all age groups.
It laid bare the disconnect between participants’ willingness to help someone who self-harms and their actual behaviour, and showed how people who self-harm believe others have a lower opinion of them.
Mark Kennedy, Assistant Director of Samaritans Ireland, said: “Our findings are staggering and reveal that society in general frequently inflicts stigma and its effect on those who self-harm is profound. Nobody should have to bear the stigma and discrimination outlined in this report.
“It calls upon each of us to acknowledge our own responsibility to combat stigma and support those who are struggling with self-harm.”
A total of 769 adults from across the island of Ireland took part in the research, with input from people with lived experience, their loved ones or caregivers, healthcare professionals, and members of the public with no connection to the issue.
It revealed people would remove themselves from everyday scenarios to avoid someone who self-harmed - for example car sharing, new relationships, employment - and how people who self-harm believed others had a lower opinion of them, including healthcare professionals.
Key findings included:
- While 77% of all participants would be willing to ‘help’ someone who self-harmed, 64% would not carpool and 56% would not rent an apartment to them.
- Some reported self-harming from as young as four-years-old, and others not starting until they were 50.
- The majority of those who self-harmed reported their self-harming behaviours lasted an average of 13 years, while others struggled with it for a lifetime.
- Family, friends and caregivers felt most impacted by their own thoughts and emotions related to someone who self-harms.
- The portrayal of self-harm in the media, film and TV significantly impacts society’s perception of the issue.
- Professionals believe they provide warm and understanding care to patients, despite some individuals expressing the oppositive view.
- Nearly 90% of those who self-harm think others will have a lower opinion of them.
Of those with no lived experience of self-harm:
- Over 50% would not enter a new relationship if they saw visible signs of self-harm, while 30% said it would impact on their willingness to hire someone.
- 80% felt they could not speak to their employer about self-harm for fear of judgment or stigma, including mental health professionals.
- 71% had observed/encountered, in passing, someone they believed may self-harm.
- 42% said knowing about or seeing visible signs of self-harm would impact their perception of someone.
- However, 76% said they would feel comfortable if a close friend or family member confided they self-harmed.
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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. Samaritans define self-harm as: ‘any deliberate act of self-poisoning or self-injury carried out without suicidal intent’.
Self-harm is mentioned in a call to Samaritans Ireland volunteers on average once every *hour.
Among the recommendations, Samaritans Ireland has called for:
- Wellbeing and stigma programmes in schools, universities, and workplaces.
- Mandatory stigma training for healthcare professionals.
- Compliance with Samaritans’ media guidelines.
- A whole-government approach to increasing political and public awareness of stigma.
Dr Dean McDonnell - who carried out the research with Jayne Hamilton and Dr Lauren Harper - said: “Our goal with this research has always been to advocate and give voice to individuals with lived experience of self-harm and those who support them. But one of the biggest challenges in research is that, in some areas, we are reliant on the findings from bigger countries to inform our practices and policies.
“Being one of the largest studies to focus on self-harm and stigma in both Ireland and Northern Ireland, we are hopeful that this research will be used to inform others about the impact stigmatising and discriminatory behaviour can have within our communities.”
Samaritans Ireland would like to thank all those who contributed to this pioneering research, especially those who completed the survey, shared their experiences and opinions on stigma and self-harm, and participated in discussions.
Mr Kennedy added: “The insights we got into people’s beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and attitudes are invaluable and presents new evidence of the reality of stigma and shame associated with self-harm and sets out a compelling case for change in how society views self-harm.”
If you’ve been affected by the content of this report, Samaritans are available on freephone 116 123 or email [email protected].
Note to editors:
- For more information contact Sarah Stack, Communications & Policy Manager, Samaritans Ireland, on [email protected]
- Samaritans offers emotional support 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to anyone who is in distress, lonely, struggling to cope or feeling suicidal. You can ring Samaritans on freephone 116 123 or email [email protected].
- Samaritans volunteers engaged in approximately 9,000* conversations about self-harm in 2022, indicating that someone spoke about this issue with one of our 21 branches across the island of Ireland on average once every hour. (*5,000 in Ireland & 4,000 in NI).
- Latest statistics from the National Self-Harm Registry Ireland recorded 11,932 presentations to hospitals as a result of self-harm in 2020, involving 9,063 individuals (note, this was during Covid-19 restrictions and not all cases result in hospital attendance).
- This project was made possible thanks to a grant received from the Mental Health Grants Scheme 2022, funded by the Department of Health (Ireland) and the HSE and administered by Mental Health Ireland, and funding through the Department of Health’s Mental Health Support Fund (NI) managed by the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland. The research was carried out by: Dr Dean McDonnell, Jayne Hamilton and Dr Lauren Harper.
- 769 individuals from across the island of Ireland (561 from Ireland & 208 from Northern Ireland) took part in this research between March and December 2022, ranging from 18-80 years of age. They included: individuals with lived experience of self-harm (n=226), individuals who have personally supported someone who has lived experience of self-harm (n=148), professionals who supported someone with lived experience of self-harm (n=175), OR as a member of the general public (n=220).