What is self-harm?
Self-harm or self injury refers to people deliberately hurting their bodies and is often done in secret without anyone else knowing. Some young people do it once, while others do it to cope with particularly stressful events or as a way of coping over time. When they feel pressured or distressed they self-harm; it becomes their habit for dealing with difficult emotions.
The most common type of self-harm among young people is cutting, but there are many other types of self-harm including burning or punching the body, or picking skin or sores. People who deliberately injure themselves are not trying to kill themselves, they are trying to find a way to cope with difficulties and distress.
Why do people harm themselves?
Many young people describe self-harm as a way of coping with feeling numb, or intense pain, distress or unbearable negative feelings, thoughts or memories. They are trying to change how they feel by replacing their emotional pain or pressure with physical pain. Some people harm themselves because they feel alone, and hurting themselves is the only way they feel real or connected. Others self-harm to punish themselves due to feelings of guilt or shame or to ‘feel again’.
For most young people self-harm is a coping mechanism, not a suicide attempt. However, people who repeatedly self-harm may also begin to feel as though they cannot stop, and this may lead to feeling trapped, hopeless and suicidal. People who self-harm are also more likely than the general population to feel suicidal and to attempt suicide.
Self-harm can be something that someone tries once, or it can become a habit as they search for relief from distress. The problem is that this relief is only temporary, and the circumstances usually remain.
If you are self-harming
Like many other young people, you probably understand that self-harm is not a long-term solution. You might feel like it's working for you at the moment, but it doesn't help to sort out why you are feeling the way you do.
Your first step is to decide that you want things to be different, that you want a longer term solution to how you feel. Then it is about setting realistic goals that you can work towards. It might take a little while, and there might be some hurdles along the way, but it is important to keep trying and to get the support that you need.
It can be hard to talk with the people who care about you if you're worried about how they will react to your self-harm. When you first talk to people about it they might be shocked and have difficulty understanding it, but that doesn't mean they won't support you – they might just need some time to understand what you're going through. Others might be relieved to talk with you about it; they might have seen your scars but not known what to say. You can take your time to explain your situation, or you might tell them everything at once.
Having supportive people around you is always important. Surround yourself with people that you trust, who will listen to you without judgment and that you enjoy being with. It’s good to work on some things that you can do for yourself, but you don't to have to face this challenge alone. It's important to let others know how you feel when things don’t go to plan. Don’t build up worries, anger or disappointments – talk about them.
A counsellor, psychologist or doctor can help you to work out what is triggering your self-harm, and begin to work with you on managing your difficult thoughts and feelings. Talk to your GP or find a mental health professional.
Try a few of these tips for replacing your self-harm with something less harmful and see if they work for you:
- Try holding ice cubes in your hand or eating a chilli – the cold and heat cause discomfort but are not dangerous to your health
- Wear a rubber band on your wrist and snap it when you feel the need
- Use a red pen to draw on the areas you might normally cut
- Work it off with exercise
- Scribbling with red pen on a piece of paper
- Try deep breathing and relaxation exercises
- Try and focus on something around you, something simple, watch it for a while and see if that can distract you from the negative thoughts
- Talk with someone
- If you find it hard to remember your options, write them down or put them in your phone to refer to when you need it
Giving up self-harm and developing new habits for coping with intense emotions can take time. You have to find what works for you. In the meantime it is important to look after yourself. Get support, talk to your friends, and build things into your life that you enjoy and find rewarding.
Helping a friend
It's not always obvious whether someone is self-harming, but if you're concerned it is important to talk with them about it. Let them know what you have noticed, that you are worried and that you would like to help. It can be a hard conversation at first – what you hear might be a bit scary but if you remain calm, you might have the opportunity to talk more about it and help them through their difficult time.
Remember to listen without judgment, let them know you're there for them and encourage them to seek help. It's also important to take care of your own wellbeing while you're supporting your friend, as it can be emotionally exhausting.