Self-harm is when someone deliberately hurts or injures him or herself.
Self-harming is a coping mechanism. It is not a signal that a person wants to die or is trying to kill themselves, although because of the amount of distress being experienced the incidence of suicide is probably higher in those who self-harm. People self-harm because they are trying to live and are trying to cope with the tough feelings that crop up every day. Self-harming can be a physical release from emotions that can seem very overwhelming.
There is a lot of shame, embarrassment and secret behaviour that surrounds self-harming and people can be very afraid of speaking up about it in case they are ridiculed, ostracized or for fear of causing anguish to those they love. People will often hide any physical signs that they have hurt themselves.
This can take a number of forms including:
- taking overdoses of tablets or medicines
- punching oneself
- throwing their bodies against something
- pulling out hair or eyelashes
- scratching, picking or tearing at one's skin causing sores and scarring
- inhaling or sniffing harmful substances
Self-harm is almost always a symptom of another underlying problem. While the problem can be addressed directly through behavioural and stress-management techniques, it may also be necessary to look at and treat other problems. This could involve anything from medication to psychodynamic therapy.
Most local mental health teams are prepared to see and assess people who self-harm but, where the underlying problems are too complex, may decide to refer the patient to more specialist services.
If someone you know is self-harming
- Do not act horrified or disgusted. Do not threaten. Your acceptance of the person is needed.
- Do get as much information about self-harming as possible and find out what support is available to you and the person you are trying to help. Tell the person that support is available whenever they want it. Encourage them to talk to their GP.
- Talk honestly with them about what is going on for them and their feelings surrounding their self-harming. Concentrate on the feelings rather than the actions or injuries.
- If you see the physical signs of the self-harming, again do not react with horror, revulsion or disgust. You do not have to like what is going on nor should you pretend that you do but you should try to be supportive of the person.
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