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“Self-harm scares people, which limits the conversation”

MQ’s Head of Philanthropic Partnerships Emily dealt with self-harm and anxiety for over a decade. She writes about it for the first time – and explains why research is providing a light at the end of the tunnel.

It’s hard to remember exactly when I began self-harming, probably around 13. Although my mind has blocked out the most painful memories, I remember having a constant monologue going on in my brain of doubting and criticising myself. 

These feelings would translate into a physical pain - and harming myself was a momentary release. But straight away I’d get angry with myself. I didn’t want to inflict this pain on anyone else, so I kept it hidden which just added to the shame. It was a vicious cycle that went on throughout my teenage years.

I’d never heard what self-harm was, which made me feel even more isolated. 

There wasn’t an obvious, external trigger or reason for it. I had a wonderful family, was lucky to be doing well at school and had lots of friends. This often compounded the feeling of guilt because I felt ungrateful, like I was selfish for feeling that way.

In hindsight, I wish I had spoken to someone about it but mostly I kept it to myself. I didn’t realise there was anything that could actually help me; I thought it just made me a freak. My mum found out through my sister, who spoke to her after seeing my scars one day, but my brain has somehow managed to erase the details of those conversations. However, I do remember this having an impact; the fact that she knew seemed to help me stop.

I considered anxiety and self-harm as just something I dealt with as a teenager, until my first panic attack at university.

This time there did seem to be an obvious trigger – I had recently lost three grandparents in quick succession, which really affected me. I got through numerous panic attacks, mainly on my own, with an academic mentor who gave me support and leeway on university deadlines.

I didn’t connect these experiences, but everything seemed to switch again in my early 20s. I reached a point where I felt I was no longer developing in my career and like I was moving backwards – in retrospect, I’ve realised how much feeling valued in my job affects my wellbeing. 

I felt incredibly low and reached a point where I would lie in bed, unable to do anything.

I was completely unresponsive but couldn’t explain what was going on or why I felt the way I did. Eventually I recognised that these feelings weren’t just reserved to my past and sought professional help. When my doctor diagnosed me with anxiety and referred me to a counsellor, I felt relieved. I could finally put a name to what I’d been experiencing.

Realising that I had a problem helped me find MQ. I’ve worked here for two and a half years, and am so glad I made the decision to apply to the role. Not only have I had the opportunity to learn so much professionally, but it has provided me the opportunity to channel my passion and work with the most brilliant supporters and colleagues. In my spare time, I also volunteer for and chair Nightline Association, and am constantly inspired by our incredible volunteers who feel the same passion.

Seeing that there are people out there who went through what I did has shown me that I’m not alone – and knowing my work can play a role in preventing others from going through the same thing really helps. Incredibly sadly, someone who I worked with recently took his own life. I found it very difficult to cope with and it was a tragic reminder of the need for more dialogue and more research into mental illness. 

Self-harm scares people – they don’t know how to respond to it, which limits the conversation.

Research has shown that self-harm can be a warning sign for suicide, which adds to this fear. Although there’s clearly a correlation, I have found this connection strengthens the stigma and doesn’t take into account people like me who have been incredibly low, but, incredibly fortunately, never seriously contemplated taking their own life.

Through further research, I hope we can highlight the nuances around why people self-harm and recognise that everyone’s experience is unique. It’s important to separate these issues and treat them differently – making sure that everyone gets the right support for them.

It’s a scandal that often only those who can pay, get the help they need.

Although I haven’t had a panic attack in a few years, anxiety is a stable constant in my life. Talking therapy has helped me recognise the processes my mind went through to get to the place I did and become more self-aware, so that I think twice before considering harming myself again. I’m lucky to be able to afford this, with amazing support from MQ. 

But it makes me angry that there isn’t always a route available for people who can’t afford help. Equally, it’s no good if the treatments on offer are only working on a trial-and-error basis. If research could help us target the most effective treatments at the right people, that would be transformative.

If I could go back, I’d tell myself that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

For me, research is that light – it’s knowing that there are scientists out there, doing something about it, so young people don’t have to be in the position I was. When you feel so low, you don’t always have the strength to be proactive. The knowledge that finding a solution isn’t resting on your shoulders alone is so important.

It’s only in the last year that I’ve started speaking to people about this – I felt like a hypocrite doing the job I do and not talking about it. I’ve been surprised how many close friends have had similar experiences, yet we never spoke about it. No one should have to feel alone like I did.

Mental health research might be a long game, but I’m in it for the long haul - and I can’t wait to see where it takes us.

Last updated: 6 December 2019

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