Saturday, January 24, 2015

Self mutilation:When is it a mental illness?

Last week's discussion in Body Art and Modification on "Body Modification is not a Mental illness" left me with a lot of unanswered questions. What defines self-mutilation? When is self-mutilation harmful? What is mental illness? When does self-mutilation reflect mental illness? As a person who has little experience with both of these fields I think it is hard and maybe impossible for me to form my own opinions on this difficult subject and judge whether it is a mental illness or not. It, honestly, isn't my job to judge or speculate on the actions, stress relief, or entertainment of others. It is only for the people who participate in these activities to judge whether they are suffering from a mental illness or if they simply enjoy and find pleasure in such activities.

Here I will attempt to answer some of the questions asked above, relying heavily on the readings and what was spoken in class. What defines self-mutilation? Both Musafar and Favazza discuss the phenomenon of self-mutilation as the deliberate destruction of body tissue. However, this broad definition would then include activities that we find in today's society "normal," such as ear piercings and tattoos. Farvazza explains that self-mutilation is either culturally sanctioned, and usually not defined as self-mutilation, or as culturally deviant. Culturally deviant activities is what we usually define as "self-mutilation." We usually consider self-mutilation harmful when it is culturally deviant. These activities that we mark as harmful, activities such as cutting and suspension, we often associate with mental illness. Society asks "Why would people intentionally hurt and pain themselves?" "There must be something wrong." But when are such activities a call for help and mental illness or when is it a spiritual state?

This is where I believe the topic is tricky. How can one decide if an activity is for spirituality and entertainment or if it is a sign of  a mental illness.  I believe that a lot of it may have to do with intention and no one can speak for someone's intention except for the person themselves. Therefore the activities are not a reflection of mental illness and should be respected.


  1. There is indeed a very fine line. As a psychology major, I find myself extremely confuse at the moment. Its hard to really define it or categorize it for that matter. I believe that currently there is no clear definition and there wouldn't be one anytime soon because of the subject matter.

  2. Bonnie, This is likely to be a challenging class for you as a psychology major. There is no acceptable definition of pathology in terms of body modification. Remember, as an anthropologist I take a multi disciplinary approach to body art. This is not something people in psychology would embrace. Hence the literature in psychology too often focuses on individual deviance from the norm..