This thesis explores the gender socialisation perspective of suicidal and self-harming behaviour. More specifically, it aims to improve our understanding of self-harm in relation to gender. Self-harm is frequently found to be more common among women and this thesis discusses why this might be the case. Consideration is given to what self-harm is and how different aspects of positive and negative conventional gender roles relate to it. Self-harm is investigated in both a clinical and non-clinical sample.
The thesis is made up of three research papers; the first two papers use data collected via an online survey aimed at young adults aged 18-35 years. The third paper focuses on a clinical sample of women who were admitted to hospital for medical treatment following self-harm, together with two control groups of women who have not self-harmed. These included a clinical sample attending a psychiatric outpatient clinic and a sub-group from the online non-clinical sample.
The findings show that there are some discrepancies between many researchers’ definitions of self-harm and the understandings of people who actually self-harm. Some self-harm acts may often be overlooked. Several difficulties associated with discriminating between suicidal and non-suicidal self-harm are also highlighted. Additionally, conventional gender roles, and not just whether a person is a man or a woman appear to be important in self-harming behaviour. Unlike other studies, this research discriminates between positive and negative aspects of conventional gender roles. Those with high endorsement of positive and negative aspects conventional masculinity were less likely to self-harm than those with low endorsement. However, it is argued that those who endorse more negative aspects of masculinity may engage in other behaviours not typically considered as self-harm. Self-harm was not associated with the feminine gender role per se, but only particular negative aspects that relate to anxiety and an over-reliance on others. This shows the importance of considering gender as a multivariate construct. Findings were similar for both a clinical and non-clinical sample. The inclusion of the psychiatric outpatients was important because not everyone with a psychiatric disorder self-harms and not everyone who self-harms has a psychiatric disorder. Thus, pathologising self-harm may limit our understanding.
Research findings are discussed in the context of the gender socialisation perspective. The results support the hypothesis that a person’s gender role may be linked to self-harming behaviour. However, the so-called gender paradox in suicidal and self-harming behaviour may not be due only to dominant ideas about masculinity and femininity but also due to the way self-harm is defined. Self-harm is typically restricted to feminised modes of expression. Other behaviours linked to the masculine gender role may not currently be recognised as self-harm. The strength and limitations of the current research are discussed together with suggestions for further research.