Self-harm, it seems, is one of those topics which even within conversations about mental health is difficult to talk about. Its designation as somewhat taboo territory, and the fact that those experiencing self-harm often go to great lengths to conceal the behaviour, means that it is the subject of misrepresentation, misunderstanding and fear.

In its portrayal in the media or among the general population, self-harm tends to be characterised as either a teen problem, a cry for attention or an attempt to manipulate others into a response, none of which gives an accurate picture of a behaviour that often serves as a way of coping with seemingly overwhelming distress or insurmountable obstacles, at times when no other option offers adequate relief or solace. There is a need therefore to bring self-harm into the open, to develop a language for discussions, free of panic, shame or stigma. This is what makes Out of Harm, an arts project involving young people with experience of self-harm, so important.

Out of Harm was conceived by storyteller Wendy Woolfson and supported by ConFAB, along with photographer Lisa Craig and researcher Josie Vallely. Woolfson’s experience not only as a therapeutic storyteller but also, more recently, as a counsellor for Childline informed the genesis for the project. In the latter role, she explained, at least 50% of her dealings with young people related to the issue of self-harm. In speaking to young people about the issue, it became clear that the adults in their lives felt unprepared and unable to respond appropriately to a disclosure of self harm, just as those living with the issue felt unsure as to how to open up the conversation. Out of Harm goes a long way in beginning to address these barriers.

This collaborative piece of work has evolved over the course of the last few months. It has brought a group of young people together in a series of workshops, where they have worked with the mediums of photography, poetry, filmmaking and traditional folktales, exploring what self harm means to them and examining their uniquely complex life experiences and identities. For those of us fortunate enough to be present, it was an honour to witness the final showcasing of this work.

With great wit, honesty and creativity, the individuals involved shared with us parts of themselves seldom seen and in turn shed light on an issue which has been in the shadows for far too long. Out of Harm helps to illustrate that self-harm is not an alien experience. In fact, it is not even particularly uncommon, merely part of the spectrum of what it often means to be painfully human, to feel hurt and to look for an outlet, a means of expression and a tool for survival. Out of Harm is the start of a conversation – its ultimate aim is to give us a language to say the unsayable, to shine a spotlight into dark corners. The power is in all of us to continue the dialogue.

by Susan McKinstery