Last Night’s TV – A World Of Pain: Meera Syal On Self Harm

meera syal, a world of pain
This was a film which felt more like watching Meera’s own journey of discovery about people who self-harm rather than an investigation into the subject matter itself, but as someone who’s a big fan of Meera’s, that was just fine by me, but the fact is, if you were watching this programme in order to get information about self-harm, you may not have got what you wanted out of it.

We did of course hear personal testimony from a number of girls and women who’d self-harmed and why, as well as all the statistics about it, including the fact that men, though less likely to self-harm, do so, but no men featured in the programme.

Meera talked to her friends about why they think self-harming is such a problem in today’s society with one in three young girls reporting that they’ve self-harmed at some point, and their conclusions were the ones that are commonly accepted to be the case; it’s society putting too much pressure on teenagers, it’s schools, it’s parents, it’s fashion magazines, but the fact is, while these may well be issues for some, they are by no means a panacea in terms of explanation of this phenomenon.

In fact, in the end, a single denominator wasn’t pointed out, nor was a single solution, and rightly so; it would’ve been presumptuous and arrogant to do so, and this moving film was far from either of those things.

In the course of the film we heard from a number of women and young girls who had experienced, or were still, self-harming, and one very interesting approach was that taken by the Bethlem Crisis Centre where Louise was an in-patient. There, they don’t try to stop people self-harming but they do try to limit the damage a person might do to themselves. It was said that self-harming is “permitted but not encouraged” or words to that effect, which sounded a tad odd but I can see why that stance would work, and it seemed to be working for Louise in that she was getting better there. Not ‘cured’, but better.

For some, self-harming seems to be, as one young girl pointed out, a “coping mechanism” rather than a desire to kill oneself. She pointed out that where someone might reach for a cigarette in times of stress, others reach for a razor blade. In effect, it was described as a release of pent up stress, therefore at Bethlem, by not actively trying to stop self-harm, they ask that when patients do so, they fill out a form detailing what they’ve done and what triggered it. This is more than bureaucracy gone bonkers; it’s in fact aimed at making the patient recognise possible commonalities in their behaviour and therefore ultimately, these individuals can possibly develop avoidance tactics.

There were some cases that Meera talked about where the reason for the person self-harming was very obvious, such as Sophie who’d been abused horribly by her father and other men since being 12 years old. For her, self-harming was not only a reflection of her feelings of worthlessness, it was a control issue; all around her, adults were controlling what happened to her so harming herself was the only thing she could control in her life.

For others, the reason was not so obvious. They weren’t being abused, weren’t living under appallingly terrible conditions, and it’s those people who are – amongst young people at least – most likely to self-harm it seems. And at the beginning of the film, Meera stated that what made her keen to make this film was that she’d seen in a newspaper the side-by-side headlines that Asian women topped the league of graduates and next to it, a headline stating that Asian women were more likely to be self-harmers than most other groups of people. This led Meera to initially suspect that societal influences played a big part in self-harm but as the film went on, it became clear that all demographic groups are going to contain people who self-harm. Even Princess Diana’s notorious revelation that she’d self-harmed was included in the programme.

However, the only real conclusion drawn in the programme was that all the self-harmers Meera had met revealed that being able to talk to someone about their harming was pivotal in helping them get over it, or at least reduce the likelihood of their doing it, and anyone who encountered Meera for last night’s film must’ve felt the urge to talk to her all day long…

She came across as a very compassionate, human and humane lady with a deep well of maternal, nurturing and protective instincts that one could plainly see caused her to want to scoop up and take home – and probably feed to obesity – all of the women and girls she met.

I’m not entirely sure whether Meera has ever self-harmed; there were perhaps some suggestions that she had in that she discussed how she’d portrayed a character who self-harmed and there was an open ended question as to whether she was drawing on personal experience to play that role. But whether she has or not, she was clearly moved by many of the stories she heard and I suspect this programme won’t have been the end of her involvement with the issue of self-harming.

If you would like more information about self-harming and the issues it raises, you can visit the BBC’s headroom website here.

Lynn is an editor and writer here at Unreality TV and is trained psychotherapist and the author of two books. She's addicted to soaps, period drama and reality TV shows such as X Factor, I'm A Celeb and Big Brother.