Twitter needs to step up: One Direction, Zayn Malik and #cut4zayn

Trigger Warning: This post contains conversation about self-harm, including graphic descriptions of images.

One Direction

One Direction or 1D as the kids say. See what I mean about the crazy hair?

I’m almost thirty, but I still have a vague knowledge of the band One Direction. In case you don’t know who they are, they’re a British boy band and have crazy hair. I think they may have been formed by Simon Cowell during X-Factor UK. Also, I’m pretty sure Taylor Swift dated one of them, except I know that more because I love TSwift.

But this week was the first time I had ever heard the name Zayn Malik.

Zayn is one of the five guys that makes up 1D (that’s how the cool kids refer to One Direction). For those of you who don’t know, last week Zayn left the band on the Asian leg of their tour citing stress related health issues as the cause. Then this week, Zayn admitted he was leaving the band – forever.

Cue wailing tweens who henceforth went into complete hysterical breakdowns.

Now as a child of the nineties, I can appreciate the love of a good boy band. My teenage-self loved the Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, and 98 Degrees. Think back — weren’t you devastated when AJ left the band to go into rehab? Or what about when Justin Timberlake left *NSYNC? Yes, nothing was ever the same again. (Until BSB got back together and toured with NKOTB — The New Kids on the Block — my first boy band love. This was epic.)

Backstreet Boys

Yeah, I want it that way.

So, you’re probably saying to yourself — Marisa, this is a mental health blog NOT an entertainment blog. Why are you going on about some stupid band that I have barely heard of? Because the departure of this wacky kid named Zayn from 1D led to the hashtag #cut4Zayn to start trending worldwide on twitter.

Yes, a hashtag promoting self-harm was TRENDING GLOBALLY on twitter, and it wasn’t the first time.

Back in January 2013, the same trend erupted after a photo of Justin Bieber emerged of the singer allegedly smoking pot. The #cut4Bieber hashtag was started by anonymous 4Chan users. An article in the Daily Mail quoted a 4Chan user as saying, “Let’s start a cut yourself for bieber campaign. Tweet a bunch of pics of people cutting themselves and claim we did it because bieber was smoking weed [sic].” The hashtag quickly became the top U.S. trend on Twitter and was mentioned more than 350,000 times.

Zayn Malik

Zayn Malik of One Direction

Flash forward to Wednesday, March 25th and the #cut4zayn hashtag topped out at 96,250 unique tweets according to Topsy and having a potential reach of 607K per hour. The Independent reported that the brain trust over at 4Chan are allegedly responsible for starting the #cut4zayn hashtag.

Many of the tweets included gory images with blood and I even saw a Vine of a girl slitting her throat. To be honest, as someone who used to self-harm, I couldn’t really look at the hashtag in detail because it was triggering.

My question in all of this was — where was Twitter in both the #cut4bieber and #cut4zayn phenomenon? Shouldn’t they have intervened and blocked any user who used the #cut4zayn hashtag? Couldn’t they have removed the images — that are still there by the way — that were uploaded using the hashtag?

Twitter was silent and let the trend erupt.

But then I looked at Twitter’s Terms of Service and their Rules & Policies. Nowhere do they talk about images that promote suicide, self-harm, or eating disorders. The closest thing is that “you may not publish or post direct, specific threats of violence against others.” Moreover, Twitter allows users the freedom to:

“post content, including potentially inflammatory content, provided they do not violate the Twitter Rules and Terms of Service. Twitter does not screen content and does not remove potentially offensive content unless such content is in violation of the Twitter Rules and Terms of Service.”


This was one of the images that was shared under the #cut4zayn hashtag

So Twitter doesn’t “screen content” and won’t “remove potentially offensive content” unless they violate their rules. I’m pretty horrified that the violent images that I saw don’t violate their rules or terms of service. The #cut4zayn tweets weren’t direct threats. No one was telling a specific person to slit their wrists or commit suicide (that I saw). But they were PROMOTING self-harm. At least ONE of the tweets demonstrated how to cut yourself “properly” to commit suicide by cutting. To make matters worse there were many tweets that were making fun of self-harm.

But no, none of this went against the Twitter Rules or Terms of Service.

It’s not like there isn’t precedent for social media intervening with content that promotes self-harm and suicide. Facebook started a new suicide alert system that allows users to report their friends, which can also be used to report users who may be engaging in self-harm. Both Instagram and Pinterest prohibit images of self-harm from being uploaded to its sites.

What I find the most horrifying is that our largest population of individuals that are most likely to self-harm are on Twitter. According to a survey about teens and their social media use, 59% of American teens are on Twitter. Now, if you combine that with the fact that 90% of people who engage in self harm begin in their teen or pre adolescent years and that rates of self-harm among teens range from 14% to 39% — doesn’t that make a hashtag like #cut4zayn a direct threat on the lives of our youth? Especially when self-harm related hospitalizations in Canada increased 110% for girls and saw a 35% increase for boys. Do none of these facts make Twitter feel like they have a social obligation to intervene when a dangerous hashtag starts trending globally?

There is a self-harm epidemic among today’s youth and hashtags like #cut4zayn or #cut4bieber, even if they are a hoax or prank by idiot 4Chan users, only add fuel to the fire. I haven’t self-harmed in over four years, but I was still triggered by the images that I saw on Twitter. Imagine a twelve or thirteen year-old kid who is feeling lost and alone and it’s not hard to see how these images and tweets could incite them to continue to self-harm or worse, start self-harming.

Twitter needs to make a move to change its policies now before someone gets hurt; or worse, dies.

In case you missed it, I had a great conversation with Courtney Keese, she blogs over at Courtney’s Voice and is also the content manager Stigma Fighters Teen, about this dangerous new trend. Check out the video.

When suicide happens

Trigger Warning: Frank discussion of suicide.

Writing about suicide isn’t easy. I’ve been trying for a while to write this post, but I never know where to start. Do I start with my own story? How I have lived in that pit of despair that causes someone to actually think that taking their life is a solution? Or do I open with the staggering suicide statistics? Like, every 40 seconds someone commits suicide?  Or, did you know that HALF of ALL college students consider suicide at one point?

Neither options allowed me to find the right voice to speak about something as evasive as suicide. But then, last Wednesday, I received a text message that finally gave me the voice to talk about it. And that voice is mighty pissed off.

Robot Hugs blanket nest

It was 8:30 p.m., my husband and I were lounging on the sofa, catching up with our DVR, when my cellphone dinged. We have a rule that we try not to use our phones after a certain hour, unless we’re expecting news. If it had been one text, I would have ignored it. But it was the urgency of multiple incoming texts that made me break our rule.

It was my best friend. She had just found out that an acquaintance of hers had committed suicide (I didn’t know the person). She didn’t know her that well, they had only performed together once. Her friend, who had known the woman more intimately, had told her the news and he was devastated. My friend was in the middle of a rehearsal and couldn’t really talk, but she needed to tell someone who would understand. Who could offer advice on how to console her friend.

Despite being the bastion of mental health knowledge that I am, I was at a loss and caught completely off guard by her text. There’s no real way to prepare for the news of a suicide. Other than being there for them, listening to them, and giving them a hug if they want it, there’s no real way to console a friend or family member who is dealing with this type of loss.

The absurd thing about this situation is that in the past two months, this is the third suicide victim I have heard of (and I’m not counting the multiple suicides covered by the media, like Leelah Alcorn). I haven’t personally known any of the victims. It’s always a friend of a friend, but the news always hits me like a punch in the stomach, knocking the wind out of me before I am brought to tears. (I cry for the death of strangers because I feel a fellowship with people who have mental health issues and because I know that black hole of sadness all too well.)

Except Wednesday night, something was different. Maybe it was because it was my best friend who was distraught over this sudden news, or maybe it was because this was the third person, but I was fucking angry.

I was pissed off that someone was struggling so badly that they felt the need to take their life. I was fucking pissed that they were so desperate that death seemed like a better alternative than living. I was fucking pissed that they were clearly not getting the help they needed or deserved. I was fucking pissed that people would say how they never “saw it coming.” I was fucking pissed off because suicide shouldn’t happen, but it seemed to keep happening over and over again.

Suicide warning signs

Despite all the advances we have made in mental health awareness, suicide is still an issue that is shrouded in silence and secrecy. Suicide is treated like a “contagious” disease, as if you can catch it just by speaking its name. Maybe “suicide contagion” happens not because of the act itself, but because no one wants to talk about it. No one wants to talk about the fact that maybe they’ve thought about killing themselves before because it’s embarrassing and morbid. Or maybe they had a relative who committed suicide that no one talks about. Or maybe suicide just makes them feel terribly sad, even if they didn’t know the person.

There’s no easy way of talking about suicide because it’s hard to explain why someone would think killing themselves is a viable solution to their problems. As someone who has seriously thought about numerous ways to die, suicide is still hard to articulate. It’s a complex and confusing issue because it goes against one of our most basic instincts, self-preservation.

The thing is, suicide is never about wanting to die, it’s about wanting the pain to end. It’s about wanting to disappear. It’s about wanting whatever it is you’re struggling with to be over. If you’ve never battled with depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, an eating disorder, or any other form of mental illness it’s hard to understand the enduring and seemingly never ending psychic pain. It’s a pain that follows you like a shadow in your waking hours and haunts your dreams as you sleep. There is no escaping it.

Moreover, suicide is hard to talk about because of the pervading myths that surround suicide. I’m sure a researcher somewhere has done a fancy study with numbers, but I’ve been in enough social situations to know how dumb people can be about mental health and suicide.

I was at a party this past summer when the subject of suicide, self-harm, and mental health came up. I don’t know how or when the conversation started, but it was sudden and swift and I braced myself for impact.

“They say it’s a cry for help.”

“They do it for attention.”

“Well they say that you can tell a cutter from someone who really wants to die by the direction of the cuts.”

“How much of a loser do you have to be to fuck up your own suicide?” 

“I get why people jump in front of a metro – but everyone knows taking a bottle of Advil will only make you sick.”

These comments were tossed out over wine and cheese, in front of near perfect strangers. This is the stupidity and callousness with which suicide is discussed. It was complete thoughtlessness and ignorance that dominated the conversation.

Condescending Wonka

Don’t be a douche waffle when you talk about mental health & suicide

Let me demystify a few things about cutting and suicide – the two are not intrinsically linked. Just because you cut, doesn’t mean you want to commit suicide. Attempting suicide or self-harm are not cries for help and aren’t attention seeking behaviours. People who do these things are sick, just like someone who has cancer or diabetes, and they simply don’t know how to cope with their feelings or the world they’re living in. (The Canadian Mental Health Association has broken down more myths about suicide).

This is what I wished I had said at this party. But after bearing the weight of these words in silence, I made a quick exit in tears.

So it’s not that we shouldn’t talk about suicide because we’re afraid it’ll be contagious, but we need to know HOW to talk about it. We need to be SENSITIVE to our audience. We need to be CONSIDERATE of other people’s experiences. We need to be KIND and UNDERSTANDING.

Suicide isn’t an easy subject to broach and defies all logic, but we need to talk about it or else all of these deaths will have been in vain.

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide know that there is hope. Here are contact numbers for organizations that help people in crisis.

Canada: 1-800-SUICIDE OR help lines and centers by province OR 911

US: 1-800-273-TALK

US LGBTQ Youth (the Trevor Project): 1-866-488-7386

US Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255 (press 1)

InternationalBefrienders Worldwide

Australia:  13-11-14 (lifeline) or 1-800-55-1800 (kids help line for 5-25 yrs old)

Why self-harm?

Trigger warning: This post discusses in detail someone engaging in self-harming behaviour.

The Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) recently released new statistics on self-harm among Canadian teens. The CBC reported that in 2013-2014 one in four hospitalizations among youth age 10 to 17 were due to intentional self-harm injuries. But even more shocking than that is that self-harm hospitalizations for girls saw an increase of 110%, according to CTV News. Although self-harm hospitalizations also increased among boys in this age group (up 35%), the rate of growth isn’t nearly as staggering. I find these numbers so concerning, and unsurprising, because I could have easily been one of these statistics.

Source: Canadian Institute for Information

Source: Canadian Institute for Information

For the uninitiated, self-harm behaviour can include cutting, burning, hitting or punching yourself, intentionally preventing wounds from healing, and self-poisoning. However, binge drinking, drug use, and reckless driving can also be forms of self-harm.

I engaged in the most common self-harm behaviour, cutting, although I was a bit older than the demographic the CIHI reported on. I was eighteen and in my second year of university when I first resorted to cutting. It was during a time when I was struggling to adjust to university life after the summer off. I was living in a house with five other girls and had little patience or time for their antics. I was finding it almost impossible to keep up with my full course load and I was dealing with a long distance relationship. It doesn’t sound like an unusual stress for an eighteen year old and it isn’t, but what I have learned over the years is that some of us have a capability to bear more stress than others.

I was two months into the semester when I started to isolate myself. I’d close my bedroom door and stay there for most of the day. I stopped eating, I skipped lectures and slept all of the time. When I wasn’t sleeping, I was crying. Now I know these are all symptoms of depression, but at the time I had only a vague inkling of depression. I thought that depression was a profound sadness that happened after a traumatic life event, like someone dying. Nothing like that had happened to me. For all intents and purposes, I should have been happy. I should have been enjoying university life. But I wasn’t.

I try to think back to what compelled me to start cutting and honestly, I have no idea. I never had a friend who engaged in self-harm. It wasn’t like today with self-harm blogs pervading the internet. All I remember is that one night when I couldn’t sleep, I found myself in the kitchen with a knife. I looked from the blade to my arm and knew what I was going to do. I dragged the blade across my skin. The burning pain jolted me back to life like an electric shock. As I watched the blood well up, I felt better. I could breathe. It was like the cut was a release valve and the pressure that had been building inside of me finally had a way to escape. So I made another cut and another. Each cut releasing my anxiety like air leaving a balloon. After that moment, I was hooked.

tumblr_mgyxj5YpjA1rddtbco1_1280When my friends, family, and partner saw the cuts, it scared them (as it should). They assumed (mistakenly) that I was trying to kill myself, but that’s not what most instances of self-harm are about. Non-Suicidal Self Injury is more about manifesting your psychological pain into something physical. I didn’t understand why I was hurting so much and I couldn’t find the words to talk about it, so cutting was a method of expression.

I learned through therapy that self-injury is an unhealthy coping mechanism, just like someone who drinks or does drugs. However, what I was never told was that it could be addictive like drugs or alcohol. I used to promise my partner and parents that I wouldn’t do it again, but like an addict I broke those promises over and over again. The lure of the blade would beckon to me in my pain. It didn’t matter that I was lying or breaking a promise to those that I loved; I had an itch and it needed to be scratched. It was only once I entered an intense inpatient therapy program that I finally broke the habit.

It’s been over five years since I last cut and my scars have mostly disappeared, but truthfully, in my most anxious moments, my mind instinctively thinks about cutting. But instead of trying to fight it, I give myself five minutes to think about it and then I replace it with a healthy coping mechanism, like writing or telling someone I’m struggling.

Ultimately, I was very lucky because my self-injury never led to a hospital visit. But, as the statistics show, not everyone is so lucky.

What are some of the warning signs that a friend or family member may be engaging in self-harm? (from

  • Unexplained wounds or scars from cuts, bruises, or burns, usually on the wrists, arms, thighs, or chest.
  • Blood stains on clothing, towels, or bedding; blood-soaked tissues.
  • Sharp objects or cutting instruments, such as razors, knives, needles, glass shards, or bottle caps, in the person’s belongings.
  • Frequent “accidents.” Someone who self-harms may claim to be clumsy or have many mishaps, in order to explain away injuries.
  • Covering up. A person who self-injures may insist on wearing long sleeves or long pants, even in hot weather.
  • Needing to be alone for long periods of time, especially in the bedroom or bathroom.
  • Isolation and irritability

If you suspect someone is engaging in self-harm behaviour, here are some ways you can help support them from

  • Ask how they are feeling
  • Do not be judgmental
  • Do not make them feel guilty about the effect it is having on others
  • Let the person who self-harms know that you want to listen to them and hear how they are feeling when they feel ready and able to talk.
  • When they do discuss it with you be compassionate and respect what the person is telling you, even though you may not understand or find it difficult to accept what they are doing
  • Do not give ultimatums such as ‘If you don’t stop self-harming you have to move out’. 
  • Understand that it is a long and hard journey to stop self-harming. Be aware that someone will only stop self-harming when they feel ready and able to do so.

This post originally appeared on Healthy Minds Canada.