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Understanding Self-Harm & Tips for Talking to Someone About Self-Harm



The sensations surged up from deep inside, like a geyser about to blow: a mix of sadness, anxiety, and shame that would overwhelm anyone, especially teenagers.


“I took out the blade from a pencil sharpener and cut myself”, a secondary school student told me. “I didn’t know if it would help. I just knew that it was something people did at my school. I remember feeling out of control and this gave me the control back.”


She felt relief as the behaviour served to dissolve her emotional distress. “I would do it for 5 to 10 minutes and afterwards feel calm and relaxed.”


Self-harm, especially in young teens and adults is much more common than many people realize. About 15 percent of teens have reported some form of self-injury. And while many people think about self-harm as cutting, it goes way beyond this. Head-banging, ingesting something harmful, restricting food intake or even scratching one’s own skin repeatedly are all forms of self-harm.


The stigma that surrounds self-harm behaviours can make it very challenging for those who struggle to seek and find help. Lots of people who self-harm, carry a burden of shame regarding their method for managing emotions due to the result of the stigma associated with self-harm behaviours.


Although it appears to be a wilful act, don’t assume that the pain goes away after the behaviour – because the emotional pain still remains and resurfaces, it is a temporary fix. This is why those who engage in this behaviour find it to be a very difficult cycle to break.


A common misconception about self-harm is that it is an attempt at suicide. But generally, it is not. It is always linked to emotional pain, that’s sometimes described as unescapable, and that’s why the behaviours kick in as they serve as a function of control. A controlled way to down regulate the emotional turmoil inside. Lots of people who self-harm describe how the behaviour, for example cutting, functions as a release or purge mechanism of the unwanted emotions.


So, self-harm is a behaviour where the person inflicts harm to themselves in a purposeful manner. Self-harm itself is not a mental illness. But it can be linked to a mental health concern. It shows a lack of other coping skills to handle stressors that one may experience.


If a person struggles with this behaviour, any stressor that overwhelms their ability to cope could be a trigger for self-harm. It typically stems from a very strong or overwhelming emotion. It could be related to relationships, work, school, or finances.


What causes someone to feel stress is totally subjective. But no matter what the stressor is, it is something the person may not know how to deal with, and this is why it is so prevalent in adolescents and young adults. This is when self-harm is sometimes used as an extreme coping mechanism.


Warning Signs of Self-Harm


Typically, self-harm begins in adolescence with the primary purpose of regulating one’s emotional experience. It can take nay different forms including cutting, head banging, scratching, burning, branding, etc.


Some common signs to lock out for in self-harm behaviour:


  • · Getting a very hot bath

  • · Wearing long sleeved clothes even in the heat of summer

  • · Refusal to wear a swimsuit or engage in activities that require showing of skin

  • · Scars from cutting or burns

  • · Isolating immediately after a stressful event

  • · Having a box or purse with sharp items in them


Just as with any difficult emotional subject in life, people feel uncertain and fearful of how to respond when they suspect a loved one is self-harming.


They tend to ask themselves questions such as:


  • · “Will I make it worse if I call attention to it?”

  • · “Will they get mad at me?”

  • · “What do I say?”

  • · “Maybe it is just a phase and it will go away?”


But, just as with other difficult life events, acknowledging the issue is a caring and supportive act. When we don’t ask if someone is hurting, they often feel more isolated, alone, and invisible.


If you think self-harm may be an issue for someone you care about, start by asking how they’re doing. This may sound simple but showing interest and concern for someone can be meaningful. This is especially the case if they feel alone.


Self-harm can be a sign of other emotional problems or life stressors. Be prepared to listen non-judgmentally to what a person may have to say. You may not agree with what they consider a stressor, or their interpretation of that stressor.


But it is important to remember that you can still respect their experience. Use validating comments like, “That sounds really hard” or “I hear you.” Always express hope for the person, especially about their ability to recover and feel better. You can gently suggest that they talk to a professional.


How to Talk to Someone that Maybe Self-Harming


  • · Firstly, sit with your own emotions and ask yourself, “am I nervous, scared or angry?”

  • · If you do not feel comfortable approaching the person, perhaps another student at school, seek out a school welfare officer to share your concerns with.

  • · Express concern with your loved one, however, be mindful not to make accusations or assumptions that your concern is correct. Because people who self-harm (e.g., cutting) feel intense shame, so if you approach from a place of accusation or anger it will typically lead to lying or further isolation

  • · Validate that they must be in great emotional pain.

  • · Express and promote that there is meaning in life and hope in the future

  • · Help them with researching and referrals to get the support they need.


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