If you’ve followed me here on Psych Central, my personal blog or my Facebook page then you know I’m very open about my own trials and triumphs when it comes to living with mental illness. I believe that by sharing my journey with my readers, not only do they know that someone understands, but it also helps me because I know that I’m not alone. Today I’m writing about something that I have personally battled with that many people still don’t want to talk about or even acknowledge. Today we’re going to address self-harm.
I recently wrote an article for the International Bipolar Foundation on self-harm, and I’m going to cover some of that here today. You can read the IBF article that I wrote here. While I see the progress that we have made in understanding, treating and accepting mental illness, there is still a mountain of misinformation that is being expressed when it comes to self-harm, and I believe one of the reasons for that misinterpretation is because we’re just not talking about it enough. Why aren’t we talking about it? Because it’s scary, uncomfortable and oftentimes distressing, and we don’t know how to fix it; but the reality is that it’s happening, and chances are it’s happening a lot more than you realize. The silver lining here is that there is hope, there is always hope. Before we get to the resources and ways to cope and heal, we need to establish fact from myth.
A lot of people are under the illusion that self-harm is defined by that emo or goth teenager dressed in black that keeps to themselves, when in reality, self-harm does not discriminate, it’s just like mental illness in that aspect, but it is not exclusive to people who have a diagnosis of mental illness. Self-harm can effect anyone from any background, race or gender. However, studies have shown that there is a higher risk category for people to self-harm, these include but are not limited to:
- Gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals
- Young people between the ages of 12-25
- Inmates held in prisons or detention facilities
- The elderly who live in extended care facilities
- Individuals who are battling addiction, whether it be drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, and so on.
- Individuals who have a diagnosis of an eating disorder or an anxiety disorder
The thing that I find most upsetting when it comes to people who are ignorant about self-harm is that many of them take the stance that it is an attention seeking behaviour. This could not be further from the truth. Granted there are some people who do things for attention such as in the case of munchausen syndrome, but the majority of people who self-harm go to great lengths to hide what they do. Well why do we stumble upon images of people’s wounds on social media? Chance are that those people are actually asking for help but they can’t find the words to say it out loud, instead the images speak for them, “here is the proof, please help me.”
Some people just can’t wrap their heads around the idea of someone deliberately engaging in an act that would cause them pain, hurt, and potential fatal consequences, which brings us to the question, why would people choose to self-harm? I wish I could give you a straightforward textbook answer to this question but the reality is that there are countless reasons why someone would turn to harming themselves as a coping mechanism. It’s not quite the same thing as someone turning to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate, but to make it easier to understand, you can kind of put it on the same scale. Some of the reasons that people self-harm are as follows, but not limited to:
- Feelings of intense emotional pain or distress
- A way to turn emotional pain into physical pain
- Feeling numbness, using self-harm as a way to feel something
- Pressure from others, not knowing how to cope
- Flashbacks or painful memories
- Confusion about sexuality
- Abuse of any kind: sexual, physical or emotional
- Loss of control over emotions or situations
Another misconception that arises when someone self-harms is that they are suicidal. While it is believed that people who engage in self-harm behaviours are eventually at a greater risk of attempting suicide, that does not mean that they were intending to end their life at the time of the action; but there is always the chance of people hurting themselves more than they had intended to which can result in death.
Some people sadly even brush off self-harm if they deem that the injuries are not serious enough to warrant concern. The severity of the injury to the pain that someone is experiencing is not comparable at all, end of story. It doesn’t matter if someone has scratched themselves or tried to poison themselves, self-harm is self-harm, there is no scale to measure how important or unimportant you believe it to be.
I have flip-flopped over whether or not to include this next part, but after a lot of thought I knew I had to do it because we have to have these conversations. When the majority of people hear self-harm they think of cutting when in reality there are so many different methods that people use. Here are just some of those methods:
- Pulling hair
- Taking pills or ingesting harmful substances
- Inserting objects into body
- Breaking bones
One of the scariest things is finding out that someone you care about is hurting themselves. You’re going to go through so many different emotions in such a short amount of time and that will floor you; there is no argument there. But, there are ways to ease your pain and make sure that you are okay. The first thing that you must realize is that you can’t fix them. You can’t tell them to stop and expect them to do so, think of that as telling someone with depression to “snap out of it” because it’s pretty much the same thing. What you can do if you suspect that someone that you care about is harming himself or herself is simply to ask them. I promise you that if they aren’t doing it, asking them isn’t going to make them start, but it will open up a dialogue for you to have a really important conversation.
If you find out that someone is in fact hurting themselves never be judgmental. You must look past the behaviour and see the person. Ask them what is going on in their life that could be causing this behaviour. Self-harm is a coping mechanism, albeit a very unhealthy one, but one it is. If they don’t want to talk, don’t push it but let them know that you are there to listen. Encourage them to seek help from a therapist or doctor. You must understand that the road to recovery is littered with relapse and giving ultimatums is one of the worst things that you can do. Above all you have to take care of yourself! This is a huge thing for you to deal with. Arm yourself with knowledge and resources, but make sure that you have someone to confide in.
If you are the one who is self-harming, please don’t give up. I promise you that you can recover from this. I’m not just another person blowing smoke at you; I’m someone who used self-harm as an unhealthy coping mechanism for ten years. It’s been seven years now since I’ve hurt myself. You can do this! The first thing that you must understand is that relapse is a very real possibility and if it happens it doesn’t mean that you can’t start over again. The hardest thing about choosing to get well is that you have to want it. You have to put in the effort and you have to fight for it. You must make a commitment to do this. It’s hard, I’m not going to lie, but it’s doable and you are worth it. One of the best things that I did was talk to people who were in recovery from self-harm, they gave me hope and I realized that I wasn’t alone and that I could find healthy coping techniques.
Here are some alternatives for you. Instead of hurting yourself, give these a try:
- Write your feelings down and then tear them up. Feelings come and go and you don’t need to keep re-reading something that is upsetting or triggering.
- Move around. Exercising or dancing releases endorphins in your brain that make you happy.
- Run ice cubes down your arms or legs
- Freeze an orange and then hold it in your fingertips for a brief time
- Draw a picture of yourself and mark it where you want to hurt yourself.
- Scream and yell out your frustrations
- Throw some pillows around; punch them if you have to.
- Color or paint, make it as pretty or ugly as you want.
- Make something, anything.
- Fill a mason jar with colored water and glitter; shake it when you’re stressed.
- Ask for help, it’s a hard thing to do but also one of the bravest and strongest.
There are so many resources out there to help you understand self-harm and get help for it, here are a few:
You can get help, you can get well, and you can find your balance, I promise. I battled this for ten years and it wasn’t easy, but I did it, and if I can then so can you. Never be afraid to ask for help; it’s one of the bravest things you can ever do. You are never alone.