Introducing the make space project, a user-led initiative dedicate to thinking more critically and care-fully about self-harm.
Make space is a user-led initiative creating spaces for more courageous, nuanced, and generous conversations about self-harm. In early 2020, we began with a question which was both the beginning and ongoing enquiry of our work — what does it mean to make space for self-harm?
The question this piece poses in its title might seem like a strange place to start a conversation about self-harm. Whilst there is no lack of public concern about self-harm, that concern is always directed towards a single goal — stopping it. Indeed, there is an abundance of research projects and media pieces exploring or expounding on rising rates of self-harm, particularly amongst adolescent girls. Each new statistic brings with it a flurry of anxiety, government funding, and calls to research what “causes” self-harm. But, in the midst of this worry, experiences of self-harm, and their many varied meanings and functions in people’s lives, get lost or disappear from view.
This feeling, in which self-harm simultaneously becomes erased just as it is brought to the forefront is often replicated in countless smaller, individual interactions around self-harm — especially when the focus of those interactions is on making sure it stops, or setting cessation as the goal. A focus on cessation is unsurprising, given the way in which self-harm is understood both socially and within the clinical literature as pathological. Sociologist Kesherie Gurung has noted that the medical classification of self-harm as a “symptom” can lead to a preoccupation with both the ‘reasons for’ self-harm and how to make sure self-harm stops or is brought to an end. Yet both within broader research and clinical paradigms, and in individual interactions with friends, parents, or teachers, for a person who self-harms, this doesn’t necessarily feel helpful.
What role does self-harm play in someone’s life? How do they feel about their own self-harm? What if someone’s self-harm makes sense when held in context? And crucially, what is lost when we do not stop to meaningfully explore these questions? Perhaps we lose someone’s story, maybe even their humanity. Attending to these questions might enable us to see self- harm, as Amy Chandler argues, as a crucial form of embodied emotion work through which people negotiate their lives and circumstances. Instead of assuming that self-harm is solely and unilaterally experienced as destructive, unpleasant, and irrational we might instead consider the ways in which self-harm functions in people’s lives or understand it as a practice which does things for people. When self-harm is experienced as meaningful or even productive, as Chandler’s excellent research suggests it often is, a rush to tell someone to stop, or to make them stop, can feel dismissive or cruel, it becomes care-less when it is intended to be care-ful.
So it is this question, of what care means in relation to self-harm, that prompted the formation of make space. We are a community, user-led organisation that has bought into being since early 2020. Currently composed of its four co-founders, Bathsheba Wells Dion, Veronica Heney, Courtney Sommer and Catherine Sweet, the foundations of make space were laid when we found ourselves speaking together on a panel for Self-Harm Awareness day. It was there, in our shared commitments to non-pathologization, critical psychiatry, solidarity politics, and sitting with the question, that our work began.
For each one of us these positions were central to our approach to self-harm, approaches which have variously been shaped by our own experiences of self-harm, conversations with people with experience of self-harm, conducting research around the topic of self-harm, working within excellent third sector organisations and charities that provide support to people who self-harm, and providing clinical therapeutic support to people who self-harm. And these experiences made all of us certain that it is not caring, kind, or thoughtful to treat the existence of people who self-harm as a problem that must be solved or resolved.
Rather we wanted to think about ways in which self-harm, as an object, as a topic, as an experience, could exist without needing to be solved or shamed. We thought about what we, as a group with particular expertise and experience could contribute, could add to the wonderful, vital work already being done by organisations like Self-Injury Support which provide support and resources for people with experience of self-harm.
Thus, instead of setting ourselves the task of providing or setting up new services, we thought about what might be necessary to create new or alternative ways of thinking about and reacting to self-harm, not on an individual level, but more broadly. In doing this we were guided first by the knowledge that people who self-harm rarely seek help, and when they do so they often talk to a friend, parent, or teacher rather than a medical professional. And we were also guided by the knowledge of our un-knowledge, by an awareness that we don’t have all of, or any of, the answers, that thinking about different ways of understanding and responding to self-harm is a collective and collaborative project.
So far, we have been running online events focussed primarily on what it means to respond to self-harm with care, aimed largely at people who might find themselves supporting someone with experience of self-harm with little training or supervision (such as friends, family, teachers, or other professionals without formal therapeutic or psychiatric training). Kindly funded by NSUN, we also ran a two-part workshop series exploring self-harm and care in the midst of the pandemic. In the first session, we invited those with experience of self-harm to come together and explore how the pandemic has affected both the experience and receiving of care. In the second part of the series, we spoke to individuals who may find themselves supporting someone with experience of self-harm, this time exploring how the pandemic has impacted what it means to give care to another. As always, the most powerful thing about these spaces was the patient solidarity and kinship that can be found when we are given the time and space to sit with difficulty.
Finding our feet in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic has certainly brought an occasional feeling of urgency and necessity to our work, as we respond to a context in which people who self-harm might be under incredible stress and struggling to access resources or support systems upon which they’ve depended in the past. However it’s also encouraged us to think through the practicalities and complexities of holding events online, to think carefully about how those events might be both accessible and responsive to people’s needs and safety. We’ve heard from people attending our events how the pandemic has impacted their experiences of self-harm – from the increased practical difficulty and social stigma of attending A&E to the isolation of lockdown – and we’re looking forward to using that insight to shape our work in the future.
Make space, as a collective, seeks not to communicate or to convince, but to hold and to facilitate spaces in which conversations about self-harm are possible, conversations in which self-harm can be attended to, discussed, and thought about without having to be resolved. We suggest that the ability to hold this complexity may, in itself, be a form of care. We argue that caring about people who self-harm requires that we care about self-harm itself in all of its roles, meanings, complexity, difficulty, and contradiction.
We are a new project in the process of setting up, expanding our networks, and seeking funding. If you are interested in attending one of our events, or working together, or otherwise want to get in touch, we would love to hear from you. You can learn more about us on our website, makespaceco.org, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow us on twitter at @makespace_co
The make space team.
Bathsheba Wells-Dion (she/her) — Bathsheba is an aspiring secondary English teacher based in Exeter. She has also been the South West Regional Coordinator for Time to Change, challenging stigma and discrimination surrounding mental health issues. As a co-founder of make space, Bathsheba’s role encompasses safeguarding and process.
Catherine Sweet (she/her) — Catherine is a counselling therapist and clinical supervisor and has a private practice based in Totnes. Catherine’s role in make space is of clinical support to attendees of our talks, safeguarding and advising on the ethical considerations of our work. She has a vast range of experience of working therapeutically with people of all ages and has a particular interest in creative therapy and making counselling accessible to young people in our communities.
Courtney Sommer (she/her) — Courtney is a doctoral researcher in sociology at the University of Exeter, exploring the impact of Evidence-Based Medicine on British psychiatry. She has experience in suicide intervention/advocacy and takes the lead on all things governance at make space. You can follow Courtney on Twitter @courtneysommer_
Veronica Heney (she/her) – Veronica is a PhD student at the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health, researching cultural representations of self-harm and the interrelation between narrative and experience. At make space her work particularly focuses on communication and funding. You can follow Veronica on Twitter @VeronicaHeney