Shortland Street's self-harm scene 'concerning and disappointing'
GRAPHIC CONTENT: Mental health experts are criticising Shortland Street for showing the cut arms of a teenage character who had self-harmed, saying the behaviour is "extremely contagious" and the show hasn't helped the issue.
Shortland Street on Thursday night showed character Blue's arms with multiple cuts, continuing on the storyline of his struggles after losing his girlfriend.
The show said they were highlighting a social issue and representing the struggles faced by a growing number of New Zealanders. But Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson said he was "concerned and disappointed" by the way Shortland Street had dealt with the issue.
"For viewers who have self-harmed in the past or are currently self-harming, seeing another person hurting themselves can trigger an immediate urge to self-harm," Robinson said.
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When confronted about his arms, Blue claimed the marks were there by accident – but the 16-year-old character did not deny he was self-harming. Blue then threatened to end his friendship with the character Leroy if he told anyone. The multiple cuts were blood red and appeared deep, which Robinson called graphic and concerning.
The cuts were hidden under Blue's shirt, which Robinson said was common for people who self-harmed. "Most people self-harm in private and go to great lengths to keep it secret. Often the injury will draw blood or leave a scar, but it is not usually the person's intent to kill themselves."
He said surveys showed one in every 13 teenagers self-harmed multiple times a year. "In some schools or communities self-harm rates can be higher in certain schools or peer groups. It is an extremely contagious behaviour."
Acknowledging that fact, Shortland Street producer Maxine Fleming said the show's intention was to "shine a light on an issue that has become a serious problem".
"We understand that it can be extremely triggering. We hope the story helps raise awareness around this issue that may help those who need to talk about it and lead them to seek help from the appropriate agencies."
"The response already on our Facebook page to this story has been extremely positive and we welcome the ongoing discussion around this issue."
The Shortland Street blurb for the episode described Blue as finding self-harming a "fleeting sense of relief".
"While creating a linocut, Blue accidentally cuts himself. He's surprised by the fleeting sense of relief he feels. Later Leroy discovers Blue has started cutting himself."
The depiction of cutting as being a way to channel grief was concerning, Robinson said. He warned that people feeling similar or intense emotions could resort to self-harming after seeing the episode.
"There are other ways for people to cope," he stressed. "It's not helpful for a television show to reinforce the idea that self-harm can be used as a coping strategy."
Addressing this issue, Fleming said the show was "at pains, in consultation with TVNZ and our own medical advisors, to be careful how we depicted Blue's self-harming and to make it clear, in the larger context of the story, not to reinforce this as a coping strategy".
Tash Keddy, the 21-year-old actor who plays Blue, said the story was an important display of the issues many young New Zealanders were going through.
"It's hard not to know stories about this as a New Zealander. Just talking to people at hand, when I was about to do this storyline at work, it was pretty intense. People were like, 'I know so and so'. You're never far away."
Keddy said the role was taken seriously. The storyline arose because Shortland Street wanted to bring light to the subject, Keddy said, adding the show never shied away from confronting social issues.
"This is a good topic to talk about because it's out there and doesn't get talked about a lot. So I really commend them on that," Keddy said in defense of the show's producers.
Rather than showing self-harm as a way to deal with emotional trauma, Keddy said Blue's story would show he needed help.
"There is a lot of care taken with the story itself and there will be a lot of resources available for people who are struggling," Keddy said. "Even if that helps a couple of people, it's great. In terms of changing a wider social climate, I think it's a far more complex problem than Shortland Street could ever solve by itself."
Keddy did acknowledge that by raising the issue, Shortland Street wasn't providing answers.
"It's that classic paradigm of showing something and giving a voice to something and then giving an answer. Those are two different things, so it's a hard one."
The Mental Health Foundation said self-harming was generally used to deal with intense feelings or to display emotional pain.
The foundation stressed that people who do self-harm should be listened to. "Ideas that people who self-harm are attention-seeking or manipulative are untrue and dangerous."
Shortland Street contacted The Mental Health Foundation late on Thursday afternoon, asking what it could post on social media after the show aired, according to a foundation spokeswoman. She said no producers contacted them when the scene was being made.
WHAT TO DO IF SOMEONE YOU KNOW IS SELF-HARMING
People who self-harm may have unexplained cuts, bruises or burns. Overdosing on drugs was also a sign of intentional self-harm, Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson said.
To avoid exposing signs of self-harming, people might wear long clothing in hot conditions and avoid exposing their limbs, he said.
"If you know someone is self-harming, try to keep calm, avoid judging them, and take their distress seriously."
Robinson said it was important to stay involved with people going through difficult times, especially if they were showing signs of self-harm. "Self-harm is usually related to low mood, and is often used as a coping strategy - a way to deal with overwhelming or intense emotions."
Reminding those who self-harm that their are people they can trust and talk to was also important, he said, as well as encouraging them to seek help from doctors and counsellors.
To encourage them to speak out, Robinson said they should not be judged.
"Let them make their own decisions about reducing or stopping their self-harm. Try not to judge their behaviour, but try to understand why they are self-harming."
WHERE TO GET HELP:
Lifeline (open 24/7) - 0800 543 354
Depression Helpline (open 24/7) - 0800 111 757
Healthline (open 24/7) - 0800 611 116
Samaritans (open 24/7) - 0800 726 666
Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.
0800 WHATSUP children's helpline - phone 0800 9428 787 between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day.
Kidsline (open 24/7) - 0800 543 754. This service is for children aged 5 to 18. Those who ring between 4pm and 9pm on weekdays will speak to a Kidsline buddy. These are specially trained teenage telephone counsellors.
Your local Rural Support Trust - 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)
Alcohol Drug Help (open 24/7) - 0800 787 797. You can also text 8691 for free.
For further information, contact the Mental Health Foundation's free Resource and Information Service (09 623 4812).