TW #triggerwarning This blog contains discussion of sensitive issues.
Each year in early March, mental health organisations around the United Kingdom work to promote awareness of self-harm and reduce the stigma around it that can prevent individuals seeking support.
Self-harm is a broad term which refers to a person deliberately causing harm or injury to their body. Although the term ‘self-harm’ may engender thoughts of female teenage angst, the reality is that people of all ages, genders, and cultures can be affected by self-harm.
There is no one reason why people self-harm. In my own experience of working with individuals who engage in self-harm, I have found that the reason is as unique as the person. Some people say that it helps them express or release their emotions, others describe it as turning invisible thoughts and feelings into something visible, some people want to change emotional pain into physical pain, some say it’s an escape, others say it makes them feel real.
Whatever the person’s reasons, there always seem to be two things that stand out for me: where there is self-harm there is always difficult emotion, and the relief self-harm brings tends to be a short-term release.
When someone you care about is using self-harm to manage their emotions, it can be very difficult to understand. You might feel very worried about them and be keen that they stop immediately. It is common to associate self-harm with suicide. Whilst some people who self-harm might also feel suicidal at times, the two are not inextricably linked. For the majority of people who self-harm, it is a way of coping, a way of dealing the difficult emotion, a way of surviving.
Although self-harm can be an addictive strategy that is often challenging to stop, it is possible to learn alternative ways to manage difficult feelings and situations so that you can move on from self-harm. Seeking professional help can be useful, as can sharing your thoughts and feelings with someone you trust.
If you are worried about someone you care about who is engaging in self-harm, it is ok to talk to them about it. Often people who self-harm do it secretly, fearing judgment and criticism, or not wanting to worry those around them. But self-harm is a sign that the person is experiencing emotional distress and they could likely do with a friendly, supportive listener. It’s best to avoid jumping straight in to trying to get them to stop or suggesting alternatives, as this could leave them feeling more isolated.
Instead, start with encouraging them to talk about their feelings and experiences. This way you can create a safe place where they can confide in you and ultimately you can support them to overcome self-harm and learn to use safer coping styles.
Dr Linda Craig
Photo by Finn on Unsplash
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