A recent study in London, England, found that as many as 1 in 12 young people have self-harmed. Of these the majority are young women and as many 10% will take their self-harming behavior into adulthood. It’s a public health issue that many countries can be accused of not taking seriously. In the USA, states are only just now beginning to collect statistics on self-harming behavior.
What is Self-Harm?
When someone by intention damages their body or injures themselves, it is called self-harm. Most people think of it as when a person cuts themselves but there are a number of different ways that someone can injure themselves. They can bang their head against a wall, punch or hit themselves, take to abusing alcohol or drugs, starve themselves or indulge in binge eating, and they can even exercise excessively so that it causes damage to their bodies.
This behavior may be overt but it is most often kept hidden. Someone who cuts themselves will take to wearing long sleeved shirts and conditions such as anorexia and other eating disorders are only evidenced by extreme loss or gain of weight.
Why Do People Self-Harm?
First of all, there really isn’t a typical type who self-harms. Some may do it once or twice, others become long term self-harmers and there are various influences on this kind of behavior. For some it’s a way of handling a particular problem, for others it’s part of experimentation and can have some peer pressure influence.
It doesn’t mean that you are mentally ill. The reasons for self-harming can be as varied as a recent bereavement to work or family pressures, an unwanted pregnancy, relationship problems and cultural and racial difficulties. There is some evidence that suggested about half of victims of self-harmers had experienced some form of physical or sexual abuse in their past but research in this area has, to date, been quite limited.
Victims who have spoken about their self-harming give a variety of reasons for starting this kind of behavior. Go on any site about self-injury and you’ll find plenty of comments from those who are doing it.
There may be a build-up of emotional pressure that suddenly becomes too much and is relieved by self-injury. Some even believe that drawing blood can make bad feelings simply flow away. For others it’s a form of self-punishment, while there are those who see it as a way of communicating. For some people it’s also a precursor, a kind of dipping the toes in the water, for a possible suicide attempt.
How to Spot Signs of Self-Harming
Anyone can self-harm. It’s often a secretive pursuit and you may not have any idea that someone you love is cutting or harming themselves in other ways. It normally occurs in teenage years and there are things to look out for. On their own, these may not mean that your teenage daughter or son is self-harming but they may raise suspicion enough for you to broach the subject.
Any of these might not mean that they are self-harming. Most parents know their kids well enough to realize that something may be wrong. The worst thing that you can do is let things be and hope the situation will improve. This may be the case but you can’t take the risk, of course.
Suicide and Self-Harm
Most people will think that suicide and self-harming are linked. This is not actually the case. The majority of people who self-injure do not want to kill themselves. People who self-harm use it as a form of coping mechanism rather than a route to eventually ending their own lives.
Helping Someone to Stop Self-Harming
Helping someone who is injuring themselves on purpose can be pretty difficult. You have to gain their trust and overcome initial embarrassment, on both sides. The individual who self-harms may well be ashamed of their behavior and not want to discuss it, least of all with a close member of the family. Those with a self-harmer in the family might feel similar emotions, think they have somehow caused this problem and be worried about broaching the subject in the first place.
Understanding why someone self-harms is key to helping them get over this kind of behavior. You may not be able to achieve this yourself and will could benefit from more professional help. This can include therapy which gets the self-harming individual to look at their behavior with a qualified mental health professional or therapist.
This can also give the self-harmer a bigger insight into the triggers that set off self-harming behavior and can help put in strategies that stop it occurring. One of these is developing distraction techniques that take their mind off the desire to cut or self-harm in other ways. This can include writing your feelings in a diary or book and finding less destructive ways to overcome those emotions such as hitting a pillow or doing vigorous exercise.
For many self-harmers, facing up to what is causing their behavior can be difficult. While short term solutions such as distraction techniques can work well, the long term solution to self-harming can be more elusive. It might involve building the person’s self-esteem and working on their general well-being. Self-harming takes many forms and some are more difficult to work your way out of than others. A problem such as anorexia will often need long term monitoring and help from professionals before the person emerges safely on the other side.
Support for Self-Harmers
There is more support out there for self-harmers than there used to be. Thanks to the internet you can now get in contact with people who are going through a similar situation and get advice from those who have succeeded in making themselves well again. The trouble is that self-harming can be addictive to the person doing it – so if you are helping someone then getting them involved in support groups is important if they are not willing to do it themselves.
Support means something different to each individual. A self-harmer may want someone they know well and can trust to divulge their innermost feelings. Others want someone who is likely to be more non-judgmental and distant like a qualified therapist. Finding the right support, however, is vital in helping someone who self-harm come to terms with their behavior and rectify it.
The good news is that you don’t have to suffer alone. If you are helping someone with self-harming issues there are some great resources online. Showing patience and compassion are key. The journey may be a long one, and there could be backwards steps along the way, but with the right support many self-harmers recover and lead full and enjoyable lives.