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.
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
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.
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