Debunking the Myths of Self Harm
Today is National Self-harm Awareness Day and so we’re here to debunk the biggest myths you’ll hear flying around about self-harm, and to offer some advice for supporting someone who is self-harming.
So let’s start with the myths
People who self-harm are suicidal
Sometimes this is true, but most people who self-harm are trying to find a way to survive. The technical term for it is ‘non-suicidal self-injury’ and it’s an extreme coping mechanism. When we experience something distressing – it might be a particular isolated event one day, but it could also be a series of intrusive memories from something traumatic in the past – we all try to do something called regulating. Regulating is just finding our way back to feeling ok. Maybe you go for a walk, talk to God, have a cry, talk to someone, watch cat videos – we all have our different strategies. It’s something we all learn to do as we grow up: when adults comfort us when we’re upset we gradually learn to do that for ourselves. It’s a crucial skill because we can’t live in a place of acute distress, it’s too exhausting. People who self-harm are trying to find a way out of their distress to feel ok again. It’s an extreme strategy but it might be that something extreme feels necessary to counter the kind of pain they’re in.There is a growing body of research that shows that the longer someone self-harms the more likely they are to become suicidal over time, which is why the earlier it can be talked about the better.
They’re just doing it for attention
Many people who self-harm keep it a secret and find it almost impossible to talk about. They struggle with feelings of shame and guilt, and some have been deeply hurt by the responses of other people who have caught sight of their scars and reacted with judgment or criticism. For these people attention is the very last thing they are after.
But what about those who are more open about their self-harm, or who don’t make a big effort to hide their scars? I have worked with young people who have told me that self-harm is the only way they know how to communicate the pain they are in. Perhaps “attention-needing” is a better description than “attention-seeking” in these cases. Self-harm is such an extreme way of coping that we need to be able to understand that it is a sign of great pain and distress.
It’s just another teenage phase
There is some evidence that self-harm is more prevalent in adolescence than at other times of life, and this is often explained by the particular ways in which teenage brains are growing and changing. It also seems to be a more common behaviour in teenagers today than it was 30 years ago – although we don’t know for certain that this is the case. It certainly might be true that because self-harm is talked about more openly on social media and even in traditional media more people know it as an option when they are struggling to cope. But putting all of this together still does not give us permission to dismiss self-harm as a teenage phase and leave young people to just grow out of it. For a start it doesn’t tell us anything about how to approach adults who are self-harming.
Self-harm is a sign of pain and distress. The longer someone has been harming, the less they might be aware of that connection because it becomes addictive and compulsive. At whatever age someone is self-harming what is needed is compassion, curiosity, and an absence of judgment.
So how do I help someone who is self-harming?
No-one wants help forced upon them and so in some instances, if it is an adult who is self-harming and they won’t respond to you, praying for them is the most effective thing you can do. If you suspect someone is self-harming it’s important to communicate first and foremost that you are concerned about them and that you do not judge them. You might find a way to have a quiet conversation with them and tell them what you’ve noticed and let them know that if they’d like to talk about anything you’d love to listen.
If you are an adult responding to a young person who could be self-harming there are obviously some different parameters because as adults we are responsible for keeping young people safe. One of the most dangerous things you can do is take away their equipment. We often do it instinctively because it seems like the obvious way to protect them, but if they are using self-harm to cope, and none of the underlying struggles have been addressed, they will in many instances look for other ways to self-harm and this might mean using more dangerous, unsterile equipment. Making sure they know they you will help them dress any wounds and that they know how to avoid infection is a really practical way to support them.
Broadly speaking when someone is trying to move towards recovery from self-harm there are two different tasks we are trying to help them with. One is to help them to make sense of why they are self-harming, because there is always a story. This work is sometimes best done by a therapist, counsellor or psychologist, but a supportive, empathic friend or family member can often help them to start this journey. The other task is more practical and involves finding other ways to cope with and manage their distress – because pain is an unavoidable part of life.
If you know a young person struggling with self-harm, our friends at Youthscape run a free online support program called Alumina for 14-19 year olds which you can find at selfharm.co.uk.
Jenny Flannagan co-manages Alumina, a free online support program for teenagers struggling with self-harm. She’s also an adolescent counsellor, a writer and actor, and later this year will be a qualified integrative psychotherapist and art therapist.