'Mărțișor’ and the Malaise of Self-Harm

By Jonathan Tame 01 Mar 2018
 ‘Mărțișor’ occurs every March 1st in Romania and involves the giving of hand-made ornaments or trinkets with a red and white thread tied to them.
Image by Talmacita from Pixabay

'One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.' - Proverbs 18:24

45% of women and 27% of men aged between 16 and 25 have experimented with self-harm, according to a new poll by YouGov, published today, March 1st, which has been designated self-harm awareness day.

Sarah Brennan, director of the mental health charity Young Minds, explained, ‘The reasons behind self-harm can be complex, but we know that young people face a huge range of pressures, including school stress, bullying, worries about body image, the pressures of social media and a lack of access to help if they’re struggling to cope.’

Given the immense scale of self-harm, which has been rising inexorably since the beginning of the century, it’s likely that every young person in Britain knows someone who has self-harmed, and probably most adults are becoming more aware of it too. This is a good day to learn more about it.

The ‘Mărțișor’ Tradition 

I lived for over a decade in Romania, where one of the traditions I enjoyed the most also takes place today. March 1st in Romania is ‘Mărțișor’ (pronounced martsee-shore), which refers to the giving of little hand-made ornaments or trinkets with a special red and white thread tied to them. Originally a folk custom associated with the passage of winter into spring, it is now an opportunity to express friendship, love, respect and gratitude towards others.

The simplest trinkets only cost a few pennies, so almost everyone can afford a number of them. Children sometimes buy enough for their whole class and their teachers too.  Adults may give a 'Mărțișor to their colleagues and neighbours, sometimes adding a little note of appreciation.

Like any tradition, Mărțișor can become superficial, but in my experience it can be deeply affirming. It is a day for celebrating friendship, for telling people that they mean something to you, for expressing affection in a tangible way.

Self-harm can reflect the lack of those things, a coping mechanism for the emotional pain that comes from not being valued, appreciated, noticed or affirmed. It is symptomatic of a society which struggles to express much value and worth that does not depend on your looks, wit, intelligence or body shape.

Social Media and Self-Harm 

In the liquid landscape of social media, where you can gain a hundred likes one day, then on another your post leads to ridicule and mocking, friendships are all too ephemeral. When our relationships are substantially mediated via Facebook, Instagram and Messenger, we fail to develop those social and relational skills that include listening intently to someone else, having conversations where we can express our inner thoughts and feelings, and knowing how to come alongside and support a friend who is struggling.

Perhaps we need more cultural traditions like Mărțișor, a day when there’s no embarrassment in saying how much we appreciate and respect someone, accompanied by a tangible reminder. Practices in the spirit of Mărțișor, that encourage us to reach out in friendship as well as foster shared experiences in the physical world could help build the kinds of relationships that have the power to counter the epidemic of self-harm.

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