Understanding what self-harm is
Self-harm is when someone deliberately inflicts pain, injury or damage to their body. Self-harm can include cutting, burning, scratching, biting, hair pulling, head banging or pinching oneself. It can also include other actions not listed here.
The reasons why people engage in self-harm are usually quite complex. Even so, in most cases it relates to intense negative feelings or emotional pain. Self-harming is sometimes described as an external expression of internal feelings.
Self-harm is also referred to as self-injury, non-suicidal self-injury or cutting.
Reasons why someone may hurt themselves
While there are usually many complex reasons behind why someone engages in self-harming behaviour, it is often a way of trying to cope with intense emotional distress. People who self-harm may have experienced (or are currently feeling) sadness, guilt, depression, anxiety, trauma, loss, numbness, loneliness, fear or anger.
The act of inflicting pain on oneself may feel like a release and they may feel like they can better deal with emotional pain. Some people who self-harm believe it helps them express intense negative feelings that they cannot put into words. Others believe it gives them a sense of empowerment or control. Some people feel that it can be a form of self-punishment for their perceived faults.
A difficult situation or experience can cause a person to self-harm. Common reasons why people hurt themselves may include:
- Having strong feelings of sadness, pain, or anger
- Wanting to feel something when they are feeling numb or disconnected
- Exposure to a traumatic event
- Being bullied or abused
- Worrying about life’s stresses at school, home or work
- Suffering with grief after losing someone close
- Socially desirable, their peers are doing it
The person who is self-harming may feel some relief, but it is usually short term, and when the feelings return, they may want to self-harm again.
It is worth noting that self-harm is usually not the same as a suicide attempt. A person who is self-harming may not necessarily have suicidal intentions. They may be using self-harm as a way to cope and feel some relief from strong negative feelings. However, self-harm can increase the risk of suicide, so it is important to get help.
What to say to someone who is self-harming
Self-harm can be a difficult and sensitive topic that some people may find hard to understand or talk about.
Realising that a friend or family member is self-harming can be an upsetting event. You may have found out unintentionally (for example, seeing scarring on their body), you may have found out through someone close to them, or the person may have revealed it directly to you.
If you discuss self-harming behaviour with someone, it is important to remain calm and non-judgmental.
Here are some tips on having that conversation:
- Find a neutral and private place to talk it out.
- Let the person know that you are genuinely concerned, that you care for them, and that you are worried.
- Do your utmost to be a good listener. Don’t just use your ears, use body language and prompt the other person to do the talking by asking open-ended questions.
- Do not get angry with the person or dismiss the self-harming behaviour as an attempt to get attention.
- Keep reminding yourself that you are there to support this person.
- Be patient, as the person may take their time to express their feelings.
- Ask them for their reasons as to why they are self-harming.
- Explore whether self-harming provides release for the feelings they are experiencing.
- Let them know that help is available. Emphasise that help works not only for the self-harming behaviour, but also for the underlying emotional pain.
- Remain non-judgmental at all times. This does not mean that you should condone the self-harming behaviour. Instead, make it clear that your concern is about the person’s wellbeing.
- Brainstorm together some distraction techniques, so that when they feel they need to self-harm, this may be avoided by using less harmful activities. Examples of these may include keeping and flicking a rubber band on the inside of their wrist, holding ice in their hands, exercise, or writing down their feelings.
Where to get help for someone who is self-harming
It is important to get professional help to address self-harming behaviour.
You can encourage the person to talk to their GP, counsellor or psychologist about their feelings and finding safer ways to cope.
Self-harm only gives temporary relief and does not allow the person to work through their feelings to find longer term solutions to their concerns. Self-harm is not a solution to underlying issues. It is far better to talk about these issues and resolve them safely.
One of the risks of self-harm is that it can become a habit. Someone who self-harms as a way of dealing emotional pain may find that they need to hurt themselves more and more to get the same relief. If this behaviour goes on, they might start to see it as the only way of dealing with life’s problems, which can be dangerous. It is important for the person to get help for self-harm.
Our counsellors at SuicideLine Victoria can also provide help. We’re here 24 hours a day on 1300 651 251.
If self-harm has reached the point where it is a medical emergency, call 000.
If you are struggling and want to speak to a professional counsellor, SuicideLine Victoria is available 24/7. Call us on 1300 651 251.
Kids Helpline can also help kids and teenagers on 1800 55 1800.
If it is an emergency, call 000.