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Very Real

Self Harm, Trigger Warnings And Mental Health: HBO’s ‘Sharp Objects’ Sets A Precedent

HBO’s newest crime series, with Amy Adams starring as reporter Camille Preaker, explores the taboo topic of self harm.

By Sharon Lynn Pruitt

Self-harm is a taboo subject, and HBO’s latest crime series takes a serious look at it.

The eight-episode limited series follows reporter Camille Preaker, portrayed by Amy Adams, as she returns to her hometown to investigate the unsolved murders of two young girls. Hailed by Time as the “most captivating show of the summer,” HBO’s latest offering is based on the 2006 bestselling novel of the same name by “Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn.

While the dark and winding mystery that slowly unfurls in “Sharp Objects” seems perfect for fans of HBO’s earlier crime thrillers like “True Detective” and “The Night Of,” the series’ premiere episode on July 8 ended by revealing a previously unseen facet of the story’s protagonist: Preaker has an extensive history of self-harm.

During the final scene, viewers learn that Preaker’s body is covered in scars, some of them words like “vanish,” that Preaker has carved into her body alongside the other lashes and cuts. HBO doesn’t play the reveal for shock value alone, ending the scene with a solemn card directing viewers who may be struggling with self-harm on where they can get help.

The show’s information page on the HBO website also includes an extensive list of resources available in the United States, as well as aid available in 14 other countries.

The reasons behind Preaker’s self-harm have yet to be revealed. There are a variety of reasons why someone may engage in self-harm, however; in some cases, cutting may be linked to childhood abuse, especially childhood sexual abuse, but it can also be linked to mental health disorders like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and borderline personality disorder (BPD), according to a report from Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology. There are also numerous triggers and goals — some report that they hurt themselves as a way to manage negative feelings, while some use cutting as a means to feel in control of their bodies, according to Cornell University’s research.

It’s clear that showrunner Marti Noxon, a producer, writer, and director who has lent her talents to female-led shows and movies like “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” and AMC’s “Dietland,” has no intention of shying away from the sensitive topic of Preaker’s cutting, featured heavily in the books. Judging by last Sunday’s reveal, Preaker has a history of carving words into her body — in fact, each one-word episode title is borrowed from Preaker’s scars.

In an interview with The Wrap, Noxon explained her decision, commenting, “ . . . When I got to that part in the book about how she was, you know, a ‘cutting linguist’ — I think is what Gillian wrote — I was moved by the idea that these memories were so painful that she recorded them so she would never forget what it was really like,” Noxon said. “So each word encompasses the theme of the episode.”

But while media portrayal of self-harm effectively spreads awareness of the problem, depictions of acts like cutting in TV and movies may contribute to a “social contagion” effect, wherein behaviors like cutting spread among populations similar to how any other disease would, according to a report on self-injury and recovery from Cornell University.

Preaker’s story, which includes references not only self-harm but substance abuse as well, seems to be in good hands with Noxon, however. Taboo topics that require trigger warnings aren’t new territory for the director, whose credits include Netflix’s “To The Bone,” a teen-centered drama that deals with eating disorders like anorexia.

While “Sharp Objects” does not include trigger warnings prior to the start of episodes, each episode will end with a message directing viewers on where they can receive help for self-harm and substance abuse problems, Deadline reports. The end card reads, “If you or someone you know struggles with self-harm or substance abuse, please seek help by contacting the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) 1-800-662-HELP (4357).”

In an interview with The Wrap, Noxon told the outlet that she was sensitive to how viewers may be affected by seeing evidence of Preaker’s self-harm on screen.

“And we had to be very mindful of how we showed it and not to be exploitative in any way, but also to be really sensitive to the idea that she is trying through her recovery to actually get to the root of what caused all this,” she said. “What caused those words [on] her skin, so although she could also use a really good therapist — and I would recommend that for anybody [laughs]– I do think that we show it as part of this ecosystem and something that she’s really striving not to do, that it’s not desirable.”

“In fact, the consequences of it are all over the show,” she continued. “That she is not able to live a normal life because of what she did to herself. So you know, she’s going to have to deal with that if she survives this experience.”

If you or anyone you know is struggling with self-harm, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) can be reached by calling 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or by visiting SAMHSA.gov.

[Photo: Amy Adams at the premiere of HBO's 'Sharp Objects' on June 26, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. By Kevin Winter/Getty Images]