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CAMH Stories Centre for Addiction
and Mental Health

Boys, men and self-injury

By Sean O’Malley

University of Guelph Psychology professor Dr. Stephen Lewis is an international expert on the subject of self-harm. As a leading member of the International Society for the Study of Self-Injury, his work has been featured in The New York Times, Time, USA Today, ABC, CBS, The Globe and Mail, and the BBC.

What makes his perspective so unique is that Dr. Lewis is not just an academic expert on self-harm, he has lived experience with it himself. During a traumatic childhood that saw him abused at the age of nine and relentlessly bullied in high school, Dr. Lewis cut himself for the first time when he was 15. At his lowest point in university, before committing himself to a career in self-harm injury research, he was cutting himself every day.

Dr. Stephen Lewis
Dr. Lewis spoke candidly about these formative experiences during a
TEDx talk a few years ago, and last Thursday, in a CAMH event co-organized by the Canadian Psychological Association Clinical Section and sponsored by the Margaret and Wallace McCain Centre for Child, Youth and Family Mental Health and the Cundill Centre for Child and Youth Depression he told an audience of 200 in unflinching detail about his life and his work.

I caught up with Dr. Lewis shortly before his speech.

Are men less likely than women to admit to struggling with their mental health?

There is certainly a gap for a number of mental health difficulties, whether we’re talking about depression, anxiety and the list goes on.  It’s often the case that girls and women are more inclined to disclose to other people that they might be struggling. With boys and men, it happens to a lesser degree. One reason for this is stigma, and self-injury has quite a pronounced stigma to it. There is a misconception out there that self-injury is predominantly a female concern—that young men don’t struggle with that, at least not to the same degree. There are a lot of men and young men who do struggle with this issue.  Many men are socialized to not really talk about emotions or difficult experiences due to the expectation that they have to be strong and not show any kind of vulnerability. All of these things in tandem make it more difficult for men to come forward and that’s unfortunate.

Are the rates then similar for self-harm between men and women?

It depends on the age group. If you look at adolescents, there are some reports that indicate females may report more self-injury. But in early adulthood and adulthood, we don’t seem to find a difference.

How long did you self-harm before you sought help?

I did it when I was 15 for the first time, but not a lot after that until it became more serious for me in university when it re-emerged and became quite bad, to the point where I was doing it every single day. I struggled with that for the better part of a year.

You said intense bullying was the trigger for self-harm when you were in high school.  Did those triggers change when you were in university?

Yes and no. I never really worked through the impact may past experienceshad, how they affected how I viewed myself andmy self-worth. Because of this I was vulnerable to other kinds of stressors. I was also prone to flashbacks and vivid recollections of what had happened, finding myself back in that same place psychologically where I  re-experienced a lot of the things I felt when it first happened.

At what point did you decide to turn your personal experiences into a career path?

It became apparent to me as I learned more about it that there were a lot of misunderstandings about this. So, as I started feeling better, I found a desire to do something about it. I finished my undergrad, took a year off, did some more research, and thought I had the potential to make a difference in the lives of others – those who shared a similar plight to what I had experienced.  I wanted to do something about that feeling of aloneness and hopelessness that many people experience.  I know from my own experience how awful that is, and how serious it is. At one point I was very serious about wanting to take my own life. I wanted to do something to make a difference to others.

What would you have liked to have known as a 15-year-old boy that you know now?

I would have liked to know that there are other people experiencing a similar level of difficulty. Much of my experience at that time and at university was that I was alone in this, and that I couldn’t talk about it.  I was afraid of being judged, being ridiculed, further isolated. I would have liked to know that you can talk about it and you can get better.

Do you think it is better today than it was then in terms of stigma and boys and men seeking help?

Yes. The conversation we are having right now is one we wouldn’t have had 20 years ago. So we have made progress, but I still think we have a ways to go and there is a lot more we can do.  We need to change the narrative around who struggles, who doesn’t, and what that actually means.  We need to show that it’s ok to struggle, it’s ok to ask for help and it’s ok to accept it.

Have you heard from a lot of boys and men over the years since you started speaking publicly about your experiences?

I have.  I have received a number of emails from people, including men, across the globe who have come forward and shared their experiences with me.  Some of them for the first time. It’s meant the world to be able to hear people reaching out.

Any particularly memorable responses?

One young woman emailed me recently and talked about how her boyfriend had been struggling with self-injury for some time.  She showed him the Ted Talk I gave and he thanked her sharing it. He said he could relate to different parts of my story and it helped him feel less isolated.  She said this helped him to work on his own recovery He then went for treatment and after some difficulties and ups and downs, their relationship is now in a much better place and he hasn’t hurt himself for quite some time.

For more information about Dr. Lewis’ work, please visit the Self-injury and Outreach Support website.

Page published on June 12, 2017

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