Prof Shares Personal Struggle with Self-Injury

Stephen Lewis’ mental health journey leads to research into self-injury and fostering emotional well-being among youth

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stephen-lewis“I was 15 the first time that I cut myself, the first time that I self-injured.”

That’s how Prof. Stephen Lewis, Department of Psychology, begins his 2015 TEDx talk, titled “Skeletons in my Closet,” which he delivered in Guelph in February. Lewis is known for his research on self-injury, but this is the first time he publicly shared his own story. He hopes to enhance understanding about self-injury and most importantly, let others struggling with self-injury to know they are not alone and that recovery is possible.

“I wanted to give voice to an issue that is otherwise silenced and convey hope to those who may not have much hope in their lives. They need to know they are not alone and that recovery is possible,” he says.

“In some ways, it was almost liberating. You are masking a part of yourself for so long. It was easily the most difficult but the most meaningful talk I have ever given.”

One in five adolescents and young adults will deliberately injure themselves, often by cutting or burning. Despite the prevalence of the behaviour, self-injury is often misunderstood or stigmatized. Lewis says that people will often make comments such as “It’s disgusting”, “It is attention seeking” or “It’s manipulative.”

Those myths and the stigma keep many from speaking up about their experiences and the challenges they are facing, which can have devastating consequences: many who self-injure experience a number of mental health difficulties and are at a higher risk of suicide.

Three years ago, Lewis led a team of researchers examining the nature of self-injury videos posted by teens on YouTube. The researchers were concerned the content of these videos might normalize self-injury as a coping strategy and convey a message that recovery is not possible. Following this study, Lewis and his colleagues were consulted by YouTube to address the issue and give young viewers access to information that would help them recover from self-injury. Lewis is currently studying the scope and nature of self-injury on other social networks, self-injury recovery, and ways to effectively reach and help those who self-injure.

Out of his research, Lewis co-founded Self-Injury Outreach and Support (SiOS), a collaboration between U of G and McGill University to provide information and resources about self-injury to those who need help, those who have recovered, and those who can help these individuals including families, schools and professionals. To date, SiOS has reached more than 120 countries.

In his TEDx talk, Lewis describes how being bullied led to a major depression and self-hatred, which led to cutting as a way to feel temporary relief from his emotional pain. But that pain persisted, and over time he became suicidal. His turning point came when his parents, concerned about the distress they could hear in his voice during a phone conversation, immediately flew to the university where he was a student. Lewis says he realized that despite what he was going through, he was loved and cared for.

The road to recovery was long and difficult. “It got worse before it got better,” he says. “However it can, and importantly, it does get better.” He shares how he started running and writing to help cope, as well as seeking professional help and talking with others.

He also discovered psychology as a field of study and an opportunity to research the issues of self-injury with the goal to help others.

“If you can work toward a goal, this fosters hope. You are not stagnant,” he says. “What drives me in my work is reaching and helping those who are going through what I’ve been through. I can’t change everyone’s life, but I can hopefully have an impact on some. I can let others know that as dark as it may seem, there is still light at the end of the tunnel. Even if you don’t see it, if you keep moving forward, you can find it.”