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Self-harm or State-inflicted-harm. What role does language play in the displacement of one and the other? Who gains from this?

In this revealing article, poet Janet Galbraith* tells of her own experiences and identifies wider causes and culprits.

A while ago I started writing an article about the notion of what is often called ‘self-harm’. I had felt saturated by this word and angry about the ways in which it is used to refer to a whole range of experiences. But I found it really hard to write. I wanted to research and come up with something that would articulate what I was feeling in a way that would be understood to have some gravitas. In the end, I did not finish it. But tonight, after speaking over the past days with people in detention who are in such dire situations that so-called ‘self-harm’ feels inevitable I decided just to write from experience.

I, myself, have had periods of my life when I have ‘self-harmed’, as, I imagine have many of you who read this. Self-harm comes in many forms, some socially acceptable, others that are not. I was someone who found some relief in cutting. And I have often been asked, ‘Why? What does this achieve?’ It is not something I can explain clearly. At different times in my life cutting was the result of various stresses or states or traumas I had or was experiencing at the time. At times it brought relief, at times it felt beyond my control, at times it was a scream for help. And at times I could not tell you why I needed to do this.

Many people have responded to my scars, or evidence of cutting, in anger or with what seems to be a sense of derision. But few people have really understood that the majority of those who ‘self-harm’ do so because of stresses that are placed on us by experiences that are bigger than ourselves.

At the moment there is much mention of ‘self-harm’ by people who are incarcerated in so-called immigration detention. Each time I read this I have a visceral reaction. This is not self-harm. To call this self-harm displaces the responsibility for the effects of torture and trauma onto the individual bodies of those who are being actively and deliberately harmed by successive Australian governments, and by those in Australia who acquiesce to, or actively encourage, their policies and behaviours.

As we have seen, language matters. The power of language and (mis)naming to disempower, control and construct certain groups of people as less than human or at least of less value than another has been essential to the process of creating a milieu where much of the Australian public will allow the torture and slow killing of refugees. This has a long history in this continent/country, this use of language to attempt to construct some as less than human so to shore up the anxious power of a white-supremacist nation operating in stolen lands. Since I was young I remember hearing people speak of the ‘Aboriginal Problem’. Of course now it is obvious that the only problem First Nations peoples caused was to those intent on invading and stealing lands, children and resources from them. But still this abhorrent displacement of ‘the problem’ continues.

When I think of the so-called ‘Pacific Solution’ I hear again the mis-naming of certain people – here people fleeing persecution and looking for refuge – as a problem. As many are aware, it is not these people who are a problem but rather the racism and unacknowledged history of Australia that seeps through the constant attempts at whitewash, that is the problem. It is the use and deliberate sacrificing of thousands of people in order for the mainstream political parties to grow their power and relationships with the monied, big business, the prison industry, the war criminals, that is the problem. It is the fact that many of us who live privileged and unsustainable lives enabled by the machinations of globalisation do not pay the dues for our greed. Instead there is the constant deferral onto others, those lives deemed not of value, those people who we allow to be sacrificed, that is the problem.

It may seem strange that I have gone on to speak of this but I see that in the processes of mis-naming, power constantly returns to the oppressors. Those who are oppressed are constantly mis-named as the problem and the actions of states are dis-placed onto individual bodies and psyches.

With Australian run detention centres, huge and irreversible harm is being actively and deliberately done to many, many, many men, women and children. When one or more of these people tie a sheet around their neck in order to die, or cut open their veins, or drink bleach … this is not self-harm. This is not about an individual harming themselves. This is state-inflicted-harm. This is the processes of slowly killing people with impunity.

* Janet is the author of “Re-membering”, Walleah Press, 2013.


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  1. Kaye Lee

    It takes bravery to speak about your own experience Janet. People find it difficult to understand self-harm, often including the victims, but as you point out, the harm is a reaction to stress caused by external sources at some level and most of us engage in it in some way or another. Smoking, drinking too much, obesity, drug use, gambling, anorexia – so many different ways we knowingly harm ourselves even though we are free and safe and have at least a vague idea of what the future may hold. I cannot imagine the sense of injustice that these people must feel….they have committed no crime. They are locked up without a voice and no-one to help them – no hope. How must they feel when they hear the Sri Lankan government thanking us for standing by them and giving them gun boats when the rest of the world deplores their human rights abuses. This must stop. We must release these people and give them whatever assistance they need to become productive members of our community, the same as we must do for anyone in our society who needs a helping hand to get through a period of feeling hopeless.

  2. john921fraser


    "The power of language and (mis)naming to disempower, control and construct certain groups of people as less than human"

    Another example of this is currently in the news with a Doctor telling the media that he assisted a patient to die.

    The media calls it …. "assisted suicide" ….. not assisted euthanasia, which if it was me with a terminal (incurable) condition asking a Doctor for Nembutal would be asking him to assist me to euthanise myself.

    Thats my opinion and I fully support the Doctor/s that offer this assistance.

  3. Hotspringer

    Concentration camps. Invented by the British, improved by the Nazis and the Commissars, adopted by Australia, run for profit by G4S, Transfield and like exploiters, financed by us, the taxpayers. Shame on both your houses.

  4. CMMC

    There was recently a program on Radio National where they discussed the Girls Home in Hay, in the Riverina province of NSW.

    Women who were incarcerated there in the 60’s and 70’s were interviewed, and all of them recalled the ritual of sticking pins into themselves.

  5. Kaye Lee


    Since you have been courageous enough to share your personal experience to try and help others, I would like to share my own experience. It is one of failure and inadequacy that still makes me cry. I am not sure that it will help anyone but I still want to share it with you for some reason.

    In my first year of teaching I was appointed to what some would consider a fairly tough girls’ school. It was a low socio-economic area with a real mix of ethnicity. I didn’t find a school full of thugs. I found a school full of adolescent girls, all struggling with their identity and self-esteem for one reason or another to varying degrees. Sadly it seems we must all endure this period of trial by fire when people can be so cruel, especially to the vulnerable.

    I was given the detention group for sport – the ones who had been naughty and were not allowed to go. The instructions were that I gave them pages of sports rules or school rules to mindlessly copy out. I was too young and inexperienced to realise what a wonderful opportunity this would have been for me to actually talk to the kids – listen to them and find out why they were angry or what was upsetting them or how I could help them.

    So one day, they were all being very quiet so I was marking papers. I didn’t notice that one girl was putting safety pins through her skin and another was gouging out letters with a compass in her skin and then squeezing ink into the cuts to make tattoos. I should have been there for these girls. I was not.

    And the very saddest story was one girl who had been raped when she was 11. She hated male teachers and when one touched her (innocently) she went nutso. Anyway….she was in my class and we got close. She was well-behaved for me and tried hard (generally…none of us are perfect). And then I was transferred. Her mother wrote to me saying she had gone wild begging for me to come back. I had moved away to a new job. I didn’t respond. I will never get rid of that guilt.

    I don’t know your story Janet but you are far from alone and I would ask that you forgive those who have let you down if you can. Or forget about them because people who let you down aren’t the important ones. Find your own strength. Recognise your own beauty and contribution to the world. One small act of kindness reverberates around the world.

    To those girls I should have helped and didn’t…..I am so sorry.

  6. Stephen Tardrew

    I worked with many kids and adults who self harmed and up to now have avoided saying anything because of frustration and sorrow. What they need is love and support knowing that people really care. One young woman with an eating disorder attempted suicide on a monthly basis only to be told by a female doctor she was selfish. Sexually abused and introduced to the heroin culture at an early age.

    Throughout my career I often puzzled at how so many victims were blamed for their circumstances. Sadly not much has changed. When the cultural response to unemployment, poverty and hardship is to blame the unfortunate for a lack of effort what chance have those who have much deeper problems?

    The young man brutalized by his step father who kept burning does (donuts) into his skin on a regular basis. Serious speed addiction and conflicts with police. Families can hate a child until they hate themselves and sometimes do serious damage to themselves and others. Then when they are homeless they steal while trying to survive on youth allowance and later Newstart. They end up in juvenile justice sometimes criminal justice and by then it is often almost impossible to rehabilitate.

    We may not be able to stop the abuse hidden in families however we must be more aware that disturbed children who end up as dysfunctional adults had seriously maladjusted families. Self harming is a scream for help when a person is in real crisis and at the end of their tether. People can help the welfare and mental health sector by showing a bit of compassion by trying to understand the contributors to self harm. To later loose a child or client to suicide through lack of support is a sad state of affairs.

    Through being compassionate and understanding the causal contingencies that lead to aberrant behavior it is possible to get away from retributive thinking and move towards consequential thinking and reasoned evaluation of the facts. Those who self-harm often need to tell their story however faced with judgement a skepticism they withdraw into what is sometimes an inner hell.

    The thing is not to feel guilt for the past but to change future attitudes to aberrant behaviour and to find it in ourselves to love those who have suffered, and still are suffering, unbearably.

  7. Stephen Tardrew

    Hello things are going slurp in the night to air or spam.

  8. Lisa Meyer

    On Radio National they discussed the Girls Home in Hay, in the Riverina province of NSW.

    Women who were incarcerated there in the 60′s and 70′s were interviewed, and all of them recalled the ritual of sticking pins into themselves.

    It’s a shame they do this to themselves

  9. Murphy

    Entitled to deceive for greed is a global epidemic, yet no significant mental health system in sight anywhere on earth.

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