Exploring the Stigma Associated with Self-Injury

Cheyenne Dorsagno, Staff Writer

In 2011, the American College Health Association conducted a study, reporting that 30 percent of college students have felt “so depressed that it was difficult to function” within the last year. To this point, Cornell and Princeton University researchers have conducted the largest study on self-injury to date, revealing that 17 percent of college students practice self-injury.

But despite popular delief, most people that practice self-injury do not actually plan on committing suicide. Melissa Fallon-Korb, Director of the Counseling Center and a licensed psychologist, explained that “sometimes people who self-injure get physical and emotional relief from self-injuring so that it can temporarily relieve their distress.” She warned that people should be cautious in assuming that people who self-injure are also suicidal, because it could further stigmatize their actions and make them feel worse.

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In September, SUNY Oneonta hosted a Suicide Awareness Walk. In that same month, a student who wishes to remain anonymous was removed from on-campus housing because of two trips to the hospital for self-inflicted wounds. The student, called John for the sake of the article, explained that on what was thought to be a regular afternoon, his Residential Director called him into his office with bad news. John’s parents were on their way to pick him up from school and he could not return to campus while the school deliberated his allowance for residential housing. Promptly after, John received an email declaring that he had 48 hours to make an appointment with a counselor for the purpose of an evaluation. If he failed to complete this condition, he would be removed from on-campus housing.

Many are probably unaware that the Student Behavioral Policy states, “A student whose behavior renders them unable to function effectively in the residential or college community without harming themselves, others, or disrupting the college community may be subject to involuntary evaluation and/or involuntary leave of absence from residence halls or from the College.” A student who breaches this policy may be “subject to disciplinary action.”

Many would excuse the situation because of these black and white pre-determined conditions, but why would this be the school’s course of action?

Dr. Steven Perry, Vice President of Student Development, explained, “When behavior associated with self-harm creates a disruption to the community, then the college needs to assess the level of risk of having a student remain in the hall.” He said, “Disruption takes many forms, including other students feeling they are responsible for the student’s safety. These behaviors distract roommates and hall-mates from accomplishing their goals, and this is not conducive to a high quality of student life. Imagine the disruptive impact of a serious incident.”

Understandably, other students would worry for their peer’s well-being, but the possible influence of John’s emotional state upon others could not possibly match what he is going through. While students may have been alleviated from this “distraction,” John faced an abrupt change for someone who has already made a great transition by moving to another city to become a freshman in college. Quickly, John and his parents had to make other living arrangements. While they received a refund from the school for housing expenses, the upcoming costs far exceeded what had been expected for on-campus dining and housing.

The supposed reason why many schools require students to live on-campus their freshman year is so that the students can become immersed in the college experience. By being forced into these housing arrangements, students have the opportunity to make friends with their roommates and hall-mates. Students are also encouraged to meet more people by conveniently participating in hall activities, attending class, joining clubs and eating regularly. A depressed individual already has trouble being motivated to do all of these things, but being removed from the atmosphere, as John explained, has only further isolated him from his community and the college experience. As a result, John has dropped a few of his classes, spends most days sleeping, and even considers returning to alcoholism.

John clarified that while he does battle with returning to self-injury, he did not have any intention to commit suicide on-campus or hurt his peers. In early February, while John was visiting friends in a dorm building, he took a couple more anxiety pills than what had been prescribed to him. He reached out to his friends with concern about the possible repercussions. In response, his friends contacted a Residential Adviser for help. Thinking that he may be suicidal, five campus policemen came to question John and his peers. John’s friends were constantly being asked about how they were handling the situation, but they made it clear that they had no concern for themselves. They explained that they did not want to further stress by getting him into trouble or creating more obstacles in his college life. In his defense, they also said that he never made anyone feel threatened or uncomfortable but, instead, was wanted back on-campus to live with them.

John’s friends told The State Times that they talked with many representatives of the school, who only insisted that they were not responsible for the outcome of the situation and did not seem interested in advocating for John. He went to the hospital and was told that he would be okay. Shortly after, he received an email forbidding him to even enter the residence halls.

Once a mental health professional approved by the school has made an evaluation, he may make a hopeful request to live on-campus again. This can be a hard bargain, given some of the symptoms of depression involve the sufferer finding it difficult to seek help and feeling helpless or misunderstood.

At first, it seemed that John was profiled as a danger to others. John said that he got the impression that the school thought of him as a negative influence on the students around him.

Fallon-Korb said that she has “never seen any research supporting a link between self-injury and violence towards others.” She added, “Most people who self-injure tend to take things out on themselves, not others.”

Society has had growing concerns for school violence, and one could understand why SUNY Oneonta would want to be cautious in order to protect everyone, but John has had no history or indications of hostility. Assuming that John has not been viewed as violent, he has at least been labeled as a defective student whose behavior is unacceptable and detrimental to the “normal” students.

Doubtlessly, this is a hard situation, but the response to John’s behavior seems to be a harsh and hasty one. He has explained that this experience has been nothing short of debilitating and devastating. Perhaps there could be a special hallway to accommodate depressed and/or self-injuring students. Then, they would be surrounded by people who understand and accept them instead of being further alienated because of their difficulty coping with an already challenging condition. Fallon-Korb expressed a desire for people to “debunk the stigma” associated with those who self-injure.

While many would feel more comfortable by simply looking away, those suffering should be acknowledged and uplifted during their struggles. Fallon wants troubled students to know that there are about 100 outreach programs a year that teach students what the Counseling Center is and how it can help. Also, there are many self-help materials on the Counseling Center’s website, such as essays on mental health topics, self-assessments for depression and relaxation exercises.

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