Antisocial media: Is Instagram’s pledge to remove graphic images of self-harm enough for vulnerable young people?

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In the wake of the suicide of British teenager Molly Russell, Instagram has promised to ban graphic self-harm images from the social media platform. As a recovered self-harmer, this news brings a lot of mixed emotions. I lost most of my teenage years to mental health issues, but fortunately I survived. Many others, including Molly Russell, have not been so lucky. The greatest failures however lie not at the door of social media companies, but the school system and lack of mental health services in this country.

During my lowest I would cut at least twice a day. Lost and ignored, I too sought help on the internet, turning to Tumblr to read about others experiences and get advice. Amongst the help and advice were graphic images of self-harm. This sometimes soothed me, seeing the blood and cuts on another person gave me what I needed, as if tricking my mind that those injuries were on me.

However, they sometimes triggered my self-harm. I would see worse and worse injuries and have the urge to buy sharper and sharper razors, to emulate the deep wounds I saw online. Both these effects of images of injuries to a self-harmer are probably universal. The graphic pictures can soothe, or they can trigger.

I cannot speak for all self-harmers, but because of the intensity and conflict surrounding our actions, Instagram’s promise means very little. It is, perhaps, attempting to put a plaster on a gaping wound. I think back to my self-harming days and wonder what it would be like without the access to graphic images of self-harm. I realise, not very different. My personal mental health issues began long before I had access to this content, and I only started to search these things when I was at rock bottom.

The decline and recovery of my own mental health had nothing to do with social media. I was ill because of the chemicals in my brain and the stress of divorced parents and school life. I recovered because I started seeing a child psychiatrist who referred me to counselling and gave me the medication I needed. I was lucky to have access to these things. However, children and teenagers in this country are slowly getting this help taken away from them. Because of cuts to the NHS and schools, support for mental health is breaking down. The little money that the government is spending on  Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) is often used by local bodies to backfill cuts or spend on other priorities. Research has shown that waiting times for assessments can be more than a year, and a quarter of children assessed are turned down for treatment, mainly because their problems are seen as ‘not serious enough’.

I guess I do thank Instagram for its announcement, mainly because it sheds light on the crisis that young people are in. But in reality, this ban will not make much of a difference. Young people will carry on self-harming and committing suicide, unless the government gives us the help we need.


Editor’s note: If you are experiencing any kind of mental health struggles, it is important to reach out to close friends, family, or mental health services who will be able to help support you in any way they can.

The university offer counselling and support, but if you need more urgent support reach out to the Newcastle Samaritans on 0191 232 7272, and the telephone number for the Crisis team on 0303 1231146.

Last modified: 12th February 2019

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