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When You Assume My Scar Is From Self-Harm

Self-harm comes in many shapes and sizes. As with any mental illness diagnosis, there is not a black and white solution.

I will not hide the fact that I have struggled with self-harm as my addiction, my vice, for the past 15 years. However, I don’t openly share this with anyone I meet and unless you know me and my past, you wouldn’t know that I relapsed and was struggling.

The situation is that while at work, somebody saw a scar and reported that I was not fit for work to a supervisor. Essentially, the concern was I had self-harm scars and that I was actively hurting myself. While it is true that I relapsed, the scars were healing, I was not doing it at work and putting my students or colleagues in danger, and most importantly, the scars could have been from anything. My initial reaction when I was put on leave was that it was out of concern for my well-being, but after talking with my therapist, it was brought up that where did this assumption come from? A scar could be from anything — surgery, tripping on a run, my dogs scratching me — and yet, it was automatically assumed I did something to myself?

The more time I get to reflect on this situation and the more I am able to talk with my trusted circle about it, the more I see that our system is broken. There are many things that I feel like can be learned from this situation for all parties.

Try not to make assumptions. As much as I am told it was out of a place of concern, it is hard to see how somebody can jump to the conclusion of self-harm from a scar on my body. The scar could have been from anything and in reality, while I admit my struggle, I don’t think it was fair to me to be given that assumption without knowing me or my story. What hurts the most is the idea that somebody would assume this is something I engaged in when I have known them for two months, and that I only interact with them in a professional manner. I challenge you to think about this scenario: if somebody was losing their balance at work and slurring their words, would you automatically assume they were an alcoholic and drunk? This person could have a host of underlying health issues that causes balance problems and to assume they are drunk is dangerous and hurtful. This drastic assumption is something that can parallel what I experienced and just puts into perspective how little is understood about mental illnesses and self-harm, and that the conversation needs to change.

Treatment for students versus teachers seems to be conflicting. If a student were struggling with self-harm and noticed at school, they would be referred to the school counselor/psychologist and given a chance to explain their situation. The students would then be given support through counseling or outside referrals and a plan to ensure their safety. (Note: This was my experience struggling with mental illness in high school, so I understand that may not be the case for everybody.) As a teacher, somebody brought the concern and then I was removed. I did not get a chance to explain myself, the treatment I had in place and was automatically dismissed. I was not given any support or resources and left to figure out my own safety plan. While I have a therapist and a great support system, I can imagine somebody else in my situation to have really struggled and maybe have lost their job.

The biggest lesson learned here, though, is that self-harm is completely not understood and there is still so much stigma around it that instead of supporting those of us with compassion and kindness, we are removed and shut out. I understand that seeing somebody hurt themselves is distressing and scary, yet that doesn’t mean we need to shun them and dismiss them. There is so much stigma around mental illness and a lack of understanding of self-harm that it makes me wonder, what more can I do? How do we start the conversation about the causes of self-harm, the triggers, and what we can do to educate the community to bring awareness and compassion?

What happened breaks my trust in some people I work with and that is the last thing I wanted to happen. The reason I feel this way is due to the fact that now, if I go get into an accident or my dogs to scratch me, will I be put on leave and deemed not fit for work again? Will I be assumed to not be fit for my job because of maybe getting hurt from rock climbing? Even more so, I feel like I am going to be retaliated against for struggling with my mental health. I fear I am going to be seen as less than, as weak, for having a mental illness diagnosis.

It hurts. I can only hope that sharing can spare one person the pain I feel and that I can open up the conversation to educate rather than perpetuate the cycle of stigma.

Getty image by d3sign