Self-harm is one of the topics that have some people squirming in their seats when it comes up. It’s uncomfortable, scary and absolutely necessary to talk about. The myths surrounding self-harm are abundant and I believe that one of the reasons for this is because not many people want to talk about it, but that fact is that many people are experiencing it.
Self-harm does not discriminate; it can affect anyone from any age, race, gender or background, and it is not specific to people with a diagnosis of mental illness. However, studies have shown that there are people who fall into a higher risk category for self-harm.
- Young people between the ages of 15-25 years old
- Gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals
- People experiencing drug or alcohol problems
- People living in an institution such as a prison or secure facility
Why People Self-Harm
There are countless reasons as to why people self-harm, just as there are countless reasons as to why some people turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. Here are just a few of those reasons:
- Turning emotional pain into physical pain
- Intense feelings of pain or distress
- Feelings of numbness
- Feeling out of control
- Pressure from work or school
- Confusion about sexuality
- Sexual, physical or emotional abuse
- Flashbacks or painful memories
Common Methods of Self-Harm
- Pulling hair
- Hitting self
- Taking pills
- Inserting objects into body
Myths About Self-Harm
- MYTH: It’s an attempt at suicide.
- FACT: In most cases self-harm is used as a coping mechanism, however some people may hurt themselves more than they actually intended to which can lead to death. People who self-harm do often fall into a higher risk category for attempted suicide in the future but this does not mean that the actual act of self-harm at the time it occurred was intended to end their lives.
- MYTH: Self-harm is just attention seeking behaviour.
- FACT: In most cases the people who self-harm go to great lengths to hide what they’re doing and the resulting physical wounds and scars. Guilt and shame go hand in hand with self-harm and when we see images on the internet of people “sharing” their photos of wounds or scars we assume that they are indeed looking for attention when they could in fact be saying, “I need help, here’s the proof,” yet they can’t find a way to say those words out loud.
- MYTH: If the wounds aren’t “bad enough” self-harm isn’t a big deal
- FACT: The severity of the injuries have nothing to do with the pain that someone is feeling.
How to Help Someone Who Is Self-Harming
If you suspect someone that you know is harming themselves; ask them, if they aren’t doing it they won’t start because you asked them about it. Never accuse, ask. If someone leaves their wounds visible, chances are they want you to ask them, they may find it difficult to open up and start the conversation.
Understand that you cannot fix them, nor can you tell them to stop and expect them to do so, ultimatums will not work. You can liken that to telling someone with depression to just, “snap out of it.” But, you can encourage them to seek help from a professional and to keep talking about it. Try to get them to open up about how they are feeling and what it is that is going on in their life that is leading to them using self-harm as a coping mechanism, reassure them that you are there to listen. They may not be ready to receive help or treatment at first, and that’s okay too, you’ve opened the door to communication and lifted the secrecy. Secrets lose their power in the light. Be supportive never be judgmental. Look past the wounds and see the person, and try to understand that not only is recovery from self-harm a very long road but relapse is common as well. Educating yourself on self-harm will benefit you as well as the person you are supporting.
Don’t Forget About Yourself
It will be distressing, shocking and terribly upsetting if you find out that someone you love is harming themselves. If you’re a parent of a child who is harming themselves you may have feelings that you have failed as a parent, this is not true. Talk to someone, whether that is a professional, pastor or a trusted friend.
Alternatives to Self-Harm
- Write your feelings down and then tear them up. Feelings come and go and you don’t need to keep re-reading something that is upsetting or triggering.
- Move around. Exercising or dancing releases endorphins in your brain that make you happy.
- Run ice cubes down your arms or legs
- Freeze an orange and then hold it in your fingertips for a brief time
- Draw a picture of yourself and mark it where you want to hurt yourself.
- Scream and yell out your frustrations
- Throw some pillows around; punch them if you have to.
- Color or paint, make it as pretty or ugly as you want.
- Make something, anything. Fill a mason jar with colored water and glitter; shake it when you’re stressed.
- Ask for help, it’s a hard thing to do but also one of the bravest and strongest.
Where to Go For Help
Don’t give up on yourself; you’re worth fighting for. There are rehabilitation facilities out there that can help you find healthy coping mechanisms. Talk to others who have gone through the same things that you are. It’s a relief to realize that you aren’t alone and that someone else understands. Hearing the stories of people who have overcome self-harm can be encouraging and uplifting. You have to make a commitment to helping yourself, but understand that relapse is real and doesn’t mean that you have failed or can’t stop for good. You must face the emotions, or lack of them, responsible for you choosing these behaviours, and that can be scary. The help of a therapist or doctor can help you with this. That is nothing to be ashamed of.
- The Butterfly Project - for preventing a relapse
US Treatment Centers
Canada Treatment Centers
UK Treatment Centers