This is a controversial topic to write about. Yet, it is something that is absolutely necessary. When we think about the self-harming process, the usual progression of thought leads to the cutting of a wrist – a temporary relief system for someone who is suffering. Inflicting physical pain on oneself can provide an escape from persistent psychological pain. I’m talking from experience. I’ve been down this path, and yes, it did provide a small escape. Some intermittent relief. Well, that was until I felt unavoidable shame regarding my actions. It resulted in further grief and emotional suffering. A year went past before I began to realise that the process of self-harm was a causative factor in my long-term emotional overloading. It was triggering a negative cycle of events, which inevitably prolonged my recovery process.
There is no typical instance of self-harm, however. Self-harm can be inflicted in multiple ways. Burning oneself, lashing out against walls, compulsively pulling out large portions of your hair, abusing drugs and/or alcohol beyond the point of enjoyment, and taking unnecessary risks such as walking into traffic or taking part in dangerous sexual liaisons – these are all examples of self-harm techniques. It is vital to identify that harming oneself can come in many forms. It is estimated that around 10% of young people currently self-harm, but it has been suggested to be as high as 20%, taking into account instances that have not been reported. External and internal stressors can be particularly damaging to the fragile youth. So much so, that most young people reported that they first started to hurt themselves around the age of 12. A shocking statistic.
“Self-harm… the world will come at you with knives anyway. Please, do not beat them to it.”
Self-harm usually arises due to a combination of factors. For me, it was school and relationship bullying, body image difficulties, and bereavement. Certain factors can also put someone at further risk, including the presence of a mental health disorder such as depression, anxiety or an eating disorder. Children raised in a care home, alongside people within the LGBTQ community, are also at higher risk.
“I look at my scars and see something else: a girl who was trying to cope with something horrible that she should never have had to live through at all. My scars show pain and suffering, but they also show my will to survive. They’re part of my history that’ll always be there.”
– Cheryl Rainfield
Unfortunately, because self-harm is one of the least understood and most difficult to empathise with aspects of mental ill health, a shroud of stigma surrounds it. Mental health disorders are often invisible to an onlooker, but the visible signs of self-harm can be noticeable. Cuts on the wrist are frequently described, but this isn’t the only place that cutting can occur. For example, dentists and doctors have been known to cut themselves under their armpits, or on the inside of their thighs, as their forearms have to be sterilised and uncovered for their working practices.
If you think a friend or family member might be harming themselves, there are a few signs that you should look out for. These include unexplained or frequency injuries, blood on their clothing or sheets, persistence to keep fully covered, especially during warmer weather, but also avoiding situations where revealing clothing is expected (e.g. swimming).
People who self-harm are usually incredibly isolated and alone. Never point a finger or react in an emotional or disapproving way. Judgements will not provide any support here. Ask the person how they’re doing, and what might be bothering them. Show that you care, rather than telling them how they should react. For example, you may want to respond with:
“Sometimes, when people are in a lot of emotional pain they may hurt themselves to cope. Is that how your injury happened?”
Never use your own experience of sadness. Everyone is different, and the two situations could contrast drastically. Try your best to empathise rather than sympathise – the last thing I would want would be to feel as if I was a charity case. If you are unsure of how to help, you can always suggest referral options. If you’re scared for the individual’s safety, then calling an emergency number such as 999 may be the only option, even if the person does not agree with the decision.
For me, I learned to utilise other coping strategies, without hurting myself. These were primarily weightlifting and boxing. It allowed me to express my rage and frustration in a more productive way. I still swear by them for helping me calm down following inflammatory situations.
If anyone reading this is concerned for themselves or a loved one, here are a variety of contacts that you can use for support:
Harmless is a user led organisation, providing a range of services about self-harm, including support, information, training and consultancy to people who self-harm, their friends and families and professionals. Includes resources on alternative coping strategies.
NSHN (National Self Harm Network)
The National Self Harm Network offers an online moderated support forum for people affected by self-harm.
selfharmUK is a project dedicated to supporting young people impacted by self-harm, providing a safe space to talk, ask any questions and be honest about what’s going on in their lives. It allows people to share their personal stories around self-harm and receive answers online. Run by national charity Youthscape.
Self injury Support
Phone: 0808 800 8088 (Freephone helpline, 7pm-10pm, Mon-Fri)
Self injury Support is a national organisation that supports girls and women affected by self-injury or self-harm. They run a dedicated self-injury helpline, as well as text and email support for girls and young women under 24 years of age and supports self-injury self-help groups.