We often think of self-harm as something that is a problem for mainly teenage girls, who mostly self-harm by cutting themselves, but in fact we all self-harm.
Self-harm is anything that we chose to do to ‘hurt’ ourselves in order to deal with emotions and experiences. By looking at in that way, we all may have one too many to drink to relieve the stress of the day, too much food as it makes us feel better, or another cigarette or something worse. It’s just the degree of harm we do to ourselves that changes from person to person.
There are few statistics about how many people self-harm as it is such a secretive and shameful thing to us. It’s only hospital admissions that can be accurately recorded. In 2014-2015, 2311 young women and 457 young men were ADMITTED to hospital due to the severity of the wounds they had inflicted on themselves.
Poisoning cases for young women amounted to a frightening 14,000 cases per year and 95 young men admitted for the same thing. But surprisingly over the last year, men in the mid 30’s represent the greatest number of A&E admissions for self-harm issues.
We self-harm for different reasons and interestingly the severity of the self-harm does not match the severity of the distress being felt. There is no scale to measure it with and everyone is an individual. What distresses me may not distress you. There are so many things in life that can distress us and for some people causing some form of pain to themselves is the only option they feel they have.
It can start with any kind of issue but the most common ones I have come across are bullying, trauma, abuse, work issues, bereavement, relationships, low self-esteem, and sometimes serious mental health issues.
Self-harm is used for many reasons, and again this differs depending on the person. A few reasons are –
- A coping strategy: we use self-harm to help us deal with major trauma as it distracts from memories or listening to others being abused. It gives a way out of the situation for a short period of time.
- An expression of emotional pain: when we dare not feel the emotional effects of something because it feels like it will overwhelm us or feel it will never end so we become numb. Self-harm allows us to feel ‘something’ and it helps us to release the pressure.
- A symptom of underlying pain: we will self-harm because we are feeling emotional pain and again we hurt ourselves to release the pressure or to distract ourselves.
- Self-punishment: if we feel we have done something terrible we will self-harm to punish ourselves. This is often linked to eating disorders and body dysmorphia where we have eaten too much (in our opinion) or we are so ugly (in our opinion) we ‘deserve’ to feel pain in a vain attempt to stop us from doing it again.
- A sense of control: when it feels our life is not in our control, we cannot influence anything or change anything the one thing we can control is how much pain we inflict on ourselves.
- To prevent pain to others: we can believe that if we tell anyone what is causing us pain or if we express how we feel we will hurt the people in our lives we care about, so we self-harm instead.
It is a very complex and often scary thing for us to witness in others, but we also have to be aware of what self-harm is not–
- Attention seeking or manipulative
- A mental illness, it’s a symptom of internal distress
- Importantly it is not a suicide attempt, it actually helps people stay alive under the most difficult emotional circumstances
- It is not the problem, it a symptom of an underlying issue
- Self-harm is not about inflicting pain, it’s about getting respite from the pain
So what we see as self-harm can vary from person to person. Common forms of self-harm are –
- Cutting and scratching to varying degrees with varying objects
- Burning the body or face with anything hot. Again, this can vary from using anything such as a hair dryer to a hot plate
- Taking non-fatal overdoes of controlled and non-controlled medication
- Hitting until bruises are formed
- Throwing the body against the wall to cause injury
- Inserting objects in to the body
- Hair pulling
Self-harm makes us feel ashamed and judged by others, so we rarely ask for help or tell anyone. Most self-harmers are discovered by accident and usually close down or refuse help. We feel like we are faulty or flawed if we have to harm ourselves to survive and when we use it as a way to cope we get scared if someone one wants to take it away from us.
Once we ask for help for self-harm it is not a quick solution as it can take time to find out why we self-harm, and then to deal with the original issue. Sometimes during therapy we can find a less harmful alternative to harm like twanging an elastic band in your wrist or running ice cubes across your arms or finding a better distraction like music, art or crafts. The best way to survive self-harm is to talk about and if possible deal with the underlying issue.
Self-harm is an upsetting subject especially if we find out someone we love is doing it. Our initial reaction is possibly saying ‘stop it’. As this is about how we feel and not about the person who is self-harming, it should be the last thing we say. We are shaming the person and telling them not to do the one thing that helps them. Its sounds very wrong but the one thing we can check is that are self-harming safely, i.e. they are treating wounds, bruises etc. hygienically. Then we can suggest help there are numerous charities who work with people who self-harm, harmless is a great one – http://www.harmless.org.uk/
Private counselling helps too for those who self-harm and those who love someone who self-harm.
Tel: 07769 152 951