Self-harm. It's something that many find hard to understand. Why would you intentionally hurt yourself?
When we hear about it, it's usually in relation to young people, most often girls. But self-harm or self-injury is not just confined to teenage girls, nor even to young people. It's usually seen as a coping mechanism, often related to issues around control and anxiety. Not just self-control, but feeling in control of your own life. Self-loathing is in there too.
It can happen to people in what seem to be the most secure, loving homes because it can be nothing to do with the other people in the house and everything about how the person involved feels about themself. Imagine needing to scream and scream and scream until you are hoarse and that still not being enough to relieve the inner turmoil you feel.
While self-harm is not a mental illness in itself, it is often the visual sign of other issues such as abuse, eating disorders or emotional, depressive or personality disorders. In young people it can stem from not understanding their own emotional process; you hate yourself but don't know why or how to process the feelings.
Self-Harm Awareness Day: March 1st
Self-Harm Awareness Day is on March 1st. We're doing this post a few days ahead to give you time to find out about it and read up so that you can use the day to raise awareness or perhaps as a way to start a conversation if you suspect that you might need to, but aren't sure how.
Young Minds estimates that one in twelve young people in the UK have self-harmed at some point in their lives. And the latest figures show that in the last two years alone ChildLine has seen an increase in counselling sessions of 167% on the issue with evidence that self-harming is affecting children at a younger age than ever before.
Fast Facts about self-harm from Young Minds
- Self-harm is not a mental illness, nor is it an attempt to commit suicide.
- It doesn’t just affect girls. Boys self-harm too, but they are much less likely to tell anyone about it.
- We know that young people from all walks of life self-harm, regardless of their social or ethnic background.
- Self-harm is not a fashion fad, nor is it merely ‘attention-seeking behaviour’.
- Most importantly, it is not easy for a young person to stop self-harming behaviour.
Self-harm is also not just about cutting. It can be about abusing drugs (whether prescription or recreational) or alcohol. The most scary thing is that you may speak to that person (of whatever age) every day and never notice that anything is wrong.
How to help someone who is self-harming
So as a parent, how do you spot the signs and what can you do about it without making matters worse? Your natural reaction is to be horrified and distressed, especially if you find out by seeing scratches or scars and you will of course, want to tell them to stop - right now. Let's face it, that's unlikely to work and if they've summoned the courage to tell you it was undoubtedly really difficult for them to do.
We've gathered some advice from support sites and added our own as parents. If you have some advice from your own experience, please add it in the comments.
- Be careful about the words you use and don't be judgemental or confrontational.
- Don't accuse them of 'attention-seeking'. Most people go to great lengths to avoid detection.
- Try to concentrate on the reasons for the self-harming behaviour, rather than the act itself.
- Don't make it about you: "I've failed as a parent." It's not about you, it's about them. And everyone feels they've failed at some level, at some stage.
- Do some reading up about the issue to help your own understanding. Life Signs has some fact sheets you can download too
- If your child is internet savvy, they may well have visited self-harm support sites themselves but you can always pass on the links below if you feel it is appropriate.
- Encourage them to get support with how they are feeling and help them to find it.
- Be guided by them - tell them you're there to support them in the way that THEY want, not how you want to support them. This way, you are helping them to feel in control but letting them know you're there when they need you.
- If they will talk to you, let THEM talk. Resist the urge to interrupt, impose your views, contradict them or tell them their feelings are wrong.
- Empathise: Remember what it was like as a teenager and how you wanted to be treated.
- Childline has six ways to cope with the urge to self-harm including using an ice-cube to feel pain instead of cutting, or listening to music. If you just can't talk to your child about this aspect or they won't let you, you could print the page off and give it to them (careful with your approach though!). There is also a link there to the charity's self-harm message boards.
- Seek support for yourself. Use the links below or make an appointment to see your GP. They should also be able to help you access local services such as counselling, support groups or family therapy.
As I mentioned earlier, the person who is self-harming isn't always a teenager. Adults can just as easily be affected and they may also feel additional shame that they are doing this at the age they are. It may not be cutting - or not only cutting. They may be using alcohol or drugs or a combination in a deliberate way to harm themselves but you haven't understood that this is what is happening. Life Signs has a case study of adult self-harm, some advice and a personal account.
The charities involved with the awareness day hope that the campaign will help to reduce the stigma attached to self-harming which prevents many people from seeking help. You can follow the campaign on Twitter via #selfharm and find out more about the campaign on each of the charities' websites.
- Life Signs user-led website
- Young Minds
- Young Minds Talking Taboos
- Childline's self-harm pages
- Self-injury in adults
- National Self Injury Day Facebook page
- Self Harm Awareness facebook page
- LifeSigns YouTube channel
- Autism & Self-harm
If you have read this and are imminent danger of hurting yourself, please seek help by calling
- ChildLine: 0800 1111
- The Samaritans: 08457 90 90 90
- NHS 111
- or reading this on LifeSigns