When someone says the words ‘self-harm’ or ‘self-injury’, it feels like something that is big, scary and uncomfortable. The thing about self-harm is, it’s actually a whole range of behaviours on a spectrum that are usually done because we are hurting emotionally, we want to feel differently, but we’re not sure how to cope with the negative feelings.
It’s estimated that around 1 in 5 people will self-harm at some point in their lifetime with this often beginning in adolescence. Self-harm can either be self-neglect or self-injury; self-neglect is where we fail to meet our basic needs, and self-injury is where we hurt ourselves intentionally. The kinds of behaviours often associated with self-neglect are over or under sleeping, over or undereating, not maintaining personal hygiene, isolating ourselves or engaging in risk-taking behaviour. Self-injury is a term that is used in more clinical settings and involves things like cutting, burning, banging, hitting or scratching ourselves.
For those who haven’t ever felt the urge to engage in these behaviours, it can be difficult to comprehend why someone might engage in such behaviour as it goes against our basic evolutionary drives to protect ourselves from harm.
So why do people engage in it?
If we look at the behaviour in its most basic form, it’s a coping strategy – it’s something individuals do to help them manage how they’re feeling. Like all coping strategies, it provides us with an outlet, releases endorphins and provides some control over our feelings and thus makes the individual feel temporarily better.
What it’s not is an attention-seeking behaviour which is why it’s so difficult to stop. If we take away the self-harm behaviour and don’t replace it with anything, the individual is left without a coping strategy so when they subsequently feel difficult emotions, it’s easy to fall back into old habits.
Finding out that someone we love or care about is engaging in this behaviour can evoke many difficult feelings. . This can potentially mean that we respond the individual concerned in a way that isn’t helpful or could have a negative impact. It’s important to remember that as human beings, it’s understandable that we will feel worried, sad or uncomfortable because we care.
So how can we channel those feelings to support someone who is self-harming?
- Recognise that self-harm is a coping strategy. This helps to reduce the stigma of self-harm and of mental health more generally.
- Respond with care and compassion. This helps promote a sense of trust and respect between you and the individual which might help them to open up and seek help. It also reduces the stigma that surrounds the behaviour, which in turn can help the individual to change it.
- Thank them for telling you. If someone has told you they are self-harming or injuring, this won’t have been easy and demonstrates they have trusted you with this sensitive information and that is a privilege.
- Ask what you can do to help. This might be things like looking for alternative coping strategies that can help them. It might be regular check-ins. It might be by helping to keep them safe.
- Signpost them to other support services. The Calm Harm app is one that helps us ride out the urge to self-harm, and you can also recommend websites, telephone or messaging services or face-to-face options, like their GP or counselling.
Self-harm is often thought of as this big, scary secret – it’s only by talking about it that we can change that. This self-injury awareness day don’t be afraid to ask the question if you’re worried about someone. If you are struggling with self-harm, please reach out to someone you trust.