Why other people don't take self-harm seriously
The problem with self-harm is not the actual selfharm/injury that you are engaged in. It's the stigma and peceptions of other people that is the main problem. It is their lack of knowledge, fear, anxiety and downright prejudice that prevents them understanding what you are going through and what help and support you are looking for. If parents, other adults or friends are prejudiced and blaming, then you have an uphill struggle in addition to sorting out the difficulty you are trying to cope with. Below are some of the common myths about self harm prevalent in the professional and public community:
Myths about self harm
Adults who encounter self harm in young people and others can quickly react according to powerful beliefs that have built up overtime regarding this problem. These myths are enduring and probably influence many parents and professionals who are in a state of shock and disbelief when they first realise that a young person, for example, is self harming.
The young person is just attention seeking !
In fact evidence strongly suggests that deliberate self harm is done for the opposite reasons. It is usually a private act which is concealed and not disclosed to friends or family by young people with low self esteem who because of the stigma attached to self harm are unlikely to seek help. The last thing they want is for attention from anyone.
Self harm does not really hurt!
It is also important to remember that every person has a different pain threshold. However, cutting or other acts of deliberate self harm does hurt although the initial pain sensation may be blunted by the intense emotions or associated drug and alcohol use. It seems that the sense of pain is very high by the time the young person is receiving treatment.
The seriousness of the problem is associated with the severity of the injury!
There is no evidence to support this proposition. A young person who self harms in a minor way by superficial cutting may be feeling just as sad, depressed or suicidal as the young person who takes a serious overdose.
Only teen-aged girls self-injure!
Research over the past five years demonstrates that members of both genders, from six continents, and ranging in age from 14-60+ reported self-harming.
Self-inflicted violence is just an attempt to manipulate others!
Some people use self-inflicted injuries as an attempt to cause others to behave in certain ways. Most don't, though. It’s more important to focus on what it is they want and how you can communicate about it while maintaining appropriate boundaries. Look for the deeper issues and work on those.
If you cause physical harm to your body in order to deal with overwhelming feelings, you have nothing to be ashamed of. It’s likely that you’re keeping yourself alive and maintaining psychological integrity with the only tool you have right now. It’s a crude and ultimately self-destructive tool, but it works; you get relief from the overwhelming pain, fear or anxiety in your life. The prospect of giving it up may be unthinkable, which makes sense; you may not realize that self-harm isn’t the only or even best coping method around.
For many people who self-harm, though, there comes a moment when they realize that change is possible, that they can escape, that things can be different. They begin to believe that other tools do exist and begin figuring out which of these non-self-destructive ways of coping work for them. How do you know if you or someone you know self-harms? It may seem an odd question to some, but a few people aren’t sure if what they do is "really" self-injury. Answer these questions:
- Do you deliberately cause physical harm to yourself to the
extent of causing tissue damage (breaking the skin, bruising, leaving marks
that last for more than an hour)?
- Do you cause this harm to yourself as a way of dealing with
unpleasant or overwhelming emotions, thoughts, or situations (including
- If your self-harm is not compulsive, do you often think
about self harm even when you’re relatively calm and not doing it at the
How can I help myself ?
If you are a young person who has already or is thinking about self harming, or if you know someone close to you who is self harming it is worth considering the following. The feelings of self-harm will go away after a while. If you can cope with your upset without self-harming for a time, it will get easier over the next few hours. You
a) Talk to someone- if you are on your own perhaps try phoning a friend. Telephone helplines and helpful contatcs are listed below.
b) If the person you are with is making you feel worse, ask them to leave or go out.
c) Distract yourself by moving about inside your home or outside, listen to some good music, do something harmless that really interests you.
d) Try to relax- and focus your mind on something pleasant, perhaps an old memory from earlier in your life or a funny joke/situation you had with friends
e) Find another way to deal with your feelings- squeezing an ice cube, or drawing red lines on your skin instead of cutting, use different pain such as eating a very hot curry.
f) Try doing something completely different which is pleasant, or maybe write a note/diary entry explaining how you are feeling and explaining what is happening.
Advice for when you don't feel like harming yourself
When the urge has gone, and you feel safe, think about the times that you have self-harmed and what (if anything) has been helpful such as:
a) Go back in time and think about the last time you felt like self-harming. What stopped you? Think about who you were with, what was going on, how did you feel? What was it that made you feel like self-harming? Did it make you feel in control, powerful or give you a sense of relief and relaxation? Did it give you a sense of escape? What could provide you with the same feelings but without causing damage.
b) How did your friends react at the time? Could you have done anything else. What would your closest friend advise you to do? How would you convince yourself not to self-harm?
c) Make a visual or verbal recording. Talk about the good things about yourself- there must be at least one! If you cannot, then get a good friend to say what they like about you. When you start to feel like self-harming re-play this recording.
d) Make a plan for when the feelings to self harm begin to get the better of you. Phone that friend, have a few options in case they are not able to take your call. Discuss the best way to avoid self-harming with them, step by step, slowly let yourself believe you do not have to do it.
What if you still feel like self-harming?
a) Reduce the damage to your body by using a clean blade, and use shallow, less heavy strokes.
b) Keep thinkming about the possible reasons why you are doing this and what else you might consider doing instead.
c) Every so often re-consider your decision not to stop self-harming.
What can a young person do if they know someone who self-harms?It can be very upsetting to be close to someone who self-harms -but there are things they can do. The most important is to listen to them without judging them or being critical. This can be very hard if you are upset- and perhaps angry - about what they are doing. Try to encourage this young person to concentrate on their friend rather than their own feelings – although this can be hard. Encourage them to talk to their friend when they feel like self-harming. Try to understand their feelings, and then move the conversation onto other things.
Take some of the mystery out of self-harm by helping their friend find out about self-harm perhaps by showing them useful leaflets, or by using the internet or the local library. Find out about getting help - maybe suggest they go to see someone, such as their GP. Help them to think about their self-harm not as a shameful secret, but as a problem to be sorted out.
- Try to be their therapist or counsellor (unless of course you are, and even then this should be a short-term plan). They need to see someone neutral in confidence.
- Expect your friend to stop overnight- it is very dificult and takes time and effort. It will not be a smooth journey to stopping altogether.
- React strongly with anger, hurt or upset- this is likely to make your friend feel worse. Talk honestly abou the effect it has had on you, but do this calmly and in a way that shows even as upset as you are your reactions are because you care abou them and their well-being.
- Struggle with them when they are about to self-harm- it is better to walk away and to suggest they come and talk about it instead, rather than do it.
- Make them promise never to do it again or make it a condition for maintaining your friendship. This is rejection and imposing conditions which will not help.
- Make yourself responsible in some way for causing them to self harm or become the person with responsibility for stopping them. You need to get on with your life, and probably need to talk with someone trustworthy about how this has affected you.
LifeSIGNS - Self-Injury Guidance & Network Support
American Self Harm Information Clearinghouse
521 Temple Pl
Seattle, WA 98122. Helpline: 206-604-8963.
Headspace National Office Australia, 47-51 Chetwynd Street, North Melbourne, Vic 3051.
Telephone: 03 9027 0100
United Kingdom National Self-harm Network (NSHN)
PO Box 7264, Nottingham NG1 6WJ
helpline: 0800 622 6000