She’s sitting there alone, uncomfortable. She keeps pulling down the sleeve on her long-sleeve shirt, avoiding eye-contact. As she leans back, you notice some scratches on her wrist.
“What happened?” you ask.
“Oh, my silly cat scratched me today. We were just playing around outside and she scratched my arm.”
Quickly, she pulls down her sleeve, laughs, and her eyes flick away.
Maybe it really was a cat.
Maybe she’s just fine, even though it is the third time you’ve seen injuries on your friend.
Self-harm or self-injury is when someone deliberately hurts or injures themselves. It comes in many different forms. Cutting is the most common form of self-harm, but scratching, burning, picking at wounds/scabs, bruising, hair pulling, and ingesting harmful substances are forms of self-injury.
Typically self-harm is a coping skill, albeit a not very healthy one. Those who struggle with self-harm often feel a sense of relief when they inflict harm on themselves. It is an act of releasing emotional pain in a physical way. It is a companion to eating disorders, depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol use, as well as perfectionism and high stress.
Self-harm becomes a very compulsive behavior. In some ways, it is similar to someone who smokes. Smoking is not a healthy behavior. We all know the damaging effects, but it is a form of stress release and very addicting. Self-harm is similar in three ways: it is a release, it is unhealthy, and it is addicting. Those who self-injure may feel so overwhelmed and out-of-control that they begin numbing themselves. Self-injury gives them a sense of control and a feeling of release that is habit-forming. Many people who self-harm have a difficult time stopping.
It is important to understand that self-harm is very different than suicide attempts or having suicidal ideation. Many people think that if someone is inflicting self-harm, they are planning or intending to die. This is not typically so, but self-harm is very dangerous, and should not be ignored, hidden, or kept secret. If you know someone who is harming themselves, don’t keep it a secret. They are asking for help.
Many also believe that self-harm is simply an act to get some attention. Parents and even doctors may assume this is so. This is not usually the case. In reality, many people go to great lengths to conceal their attempts at self-harm. They may come up with very elaborate and believable stories to explain away their wounds. They often feel a sense of deep shame for harming themselves and may be embarrassed or angry if confronted.
Accurate statistics are difficult to come by regarding self-injury because many who use self-harm as a coping skill hide it very well. It is not only a “teenage” problem. Adults use this as a coping mechanism too.
Here are a few statistics on self-harm:
Estimates indicate that over 2 million people in the US inflict self-harm each year
Each year, 1 in 5 females, and 1 in 7 males inflict self-harm
50 percent begin around age 14
It is estimated that 50% of those that engage in self-harm were sexually or physically abused as children
Many learn how to inflict self-harm from friends or from self-injury websites
Taken from HealthyPlace.com
Signs that someone you care about may be engaging in self-harm:
Unexplained scars or wounds on wrists, arms, legs, thighs, and chest
Fresh blood on clothing or towels, sheets and bedclothing
Wearing long pants/sleeves even in warm weather
Spending a lot of time alone
Difficulty expressing emotions openly
If you know someone who is engaging in self-harm:
1. Don’t panic. Don’t overreact. Remember that they are likely trying to find a way to release pain, and not attempting to kill themselves. They are seeking a way to find control when they feel out of control emotionally.
2. Ask about it. Listen. Don’t be accusatory and judgmental. Don’t let them get too specific about their attempts of self-harm as it may trigger another self-harm session.
3. Express concern for them and their well-being. Try not to express shame, disgust or withdrawal.
4. Let them know that you care and you want to help them get better.
5. Don’t keep it a secret. Don’t just think it is a phase. Get help from a mental health professional.
What if I have a problem with self-harm, what do I do?
Because self-injury is a coping skill to deal with overwhelming emotions, you need to work on replacing self-harm with healthy coping skills. Make a list of healthy coping skills. Here are a few ideas.
1. Become aware of self-injurious triggers and avoid them. If you know what triggers the thoughts and feelings that lead to injury, learn to avoid those triggers.
2. Talk to someone. You need someone that you can share your feelings with; someone that will listen without judging and telling you what to do.
3. Distract yourself. If you feel like engaging in self-harm, find something to occupy your mind and body. Go for a run. Count the bumps on the ceiling. Engage in a video game or sudoku. Find anything that will keep your mind off of self-injury.
4. Soothe yourself: a warm blanket, a warm cup of hot cocoa, some nice smelling lotion, some soft and comforting music, snuggling with a pet. Find those things that help you soothe your emotions and your body.
5. Create something: art, crafts, photography, scrapbooking. Find a creative outlet.
6. Write in a journal.
7. Seek some professional help. Don’t keep it a secret. Remember, you are trying to find a way to cope, which means you are trying to survive and move forward. Know that others care about you and want to help.
There is help. You can stop. You can feel better.
Let’s raise awareness of self-harm. Don’t just look at the title of this and move onto the next recipe or the next item on social media. Educate yourselves. If you work with young people, be aware of them. Pay attention. Even the smallest acknowledgement that you sincerely care can make a difference.
Many that engage in self-harm feel all alone. They may feel that no one cares and that no one will notice. They may feel that they have to do it all on their own. Although engaging in self-harm helps release pain, there is very often a sense of shame and guilt after injuring that only continues the cycle and adds to the secrecy of the problem. Let’s stop the negative cycle. Let’s join up to help prevent self-harm.
For more information, you can visit these sites:
Let us educate ourselves about self-harm and raise awareness. Many teens are struggling that need to know they aren’t alone, that someone cares, and they can stop harming themselves.
This article is intended for educational purposes alone. It is not intended to replace help from a medical or mental health professional. If you know someone who is struggling with self-harm, please seek help from a medical or mental health professional immediately.