Self-Harming, Why People Self-Harm & How You Can Help

Last year I was chatting to a friend and she confessed she was worried about her teen who was self-harming and she didn’t know what to do. She had tried taking anything sharp off her teen and limiting what was available in the house, but her teen still found things to use.

She didn’t know my past or that I used to be someone who self-harmed.

Unless you have been in that situation, it’s hard to actually understand what self-harming is about. It’s not about suicide or even trying to hurt yourself. If the self-harmer wanted to commit suicide, even if it was just a cry for help and they didn’t actually mean to kill themselves, there are a lot of easier and quicker ways to do it.

Self-harm is all about control and trying to take back control of your emotions and your feelings. Self-harm is when you feel so overwhelmed and out of control like you’re lost in a small boat surrounded by huge waves.

It’s not about trying to control other people or show them how much they hurt you. It’s about trying to control yourself and bring your emotions back under control.

I remember as a child watching the Original Star Trek and in this episode, Spock had been hurt and he begged Nurse Chapel to hit him. As a Vulcan, he needed to distract himself by concentrating on the pain of the slap, so that his body could concentrate on repairing his injuries.

That’s how I look at self-harming. It’s a way to calm your thoughts and feeling, your fears and anxieties and your depression because whilst you’re concentrating on the pain from your self-harming injuries, your mind quietens and calms as it’s distracted long enough for the worries and anxieties to pass.

teenage girl self harming bathroom knife blade

Yet, self-harming isn’t safe and it isn’t an answer. There are risks and dangers from self-harming, such as infection and yes death if you hurt yourself too badly.

However, helping someone who self-harms stop self-harming isn’t as easy as taking away everything they need to hurt themselves. That won’t work! What you need is to teach them (or yourself) other ways of calming your mind and finding control in your life. You cannot just stop self-harming, you need to find another way, a healthier way, to deal with the issues which made you self-harm in the first place.

I admit that before I self-harming, back when I worked with adults with learning difficulties and challenging behaviour, I thought the answer was simple. Just take away everything they can use to hurt themselves and they’ll stop. In fact, that’s what we were told to do. The client wasn’t allowed razers and everything that could be used to hurt themselves was locked away and we had to do regular room searches. As you can probably guess, it wasn’t the answer and the client still found ways to self-harm. I remember one client was actually in police custody and she managed to use the wire from her bra to re-open the stitches on her stomach from a previous self-harming incident. The policewoman had gone into the cell to check on her whilst she waited for her social worker to arrive and she told her that she’d been “silly” and showed her her bloody hands!

What is Self-Harming

What people fail to realise is that self-harming isn’t just about cutting their wrists. The phrase is actually used to describe a wide range of behaviours to help the person deal with their emotions and can be very addictive. The more you self-harm the more you find yourself needing to self-harm. Self-harm can range from cutting, burning, pinching, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, eating disorders.

It is important to focus on what the person is feeling rather than what they have done to themselves, that is the best way to help them and can be done whilst you apply any first aid that might be needed.

Self-harm is always injuries which are caused on purpose rather than accidental. It often happens during times of anger, distress, fear, worry, depression or low self-esteem as the person tries to manage or control the negative feelings they are suffering from. Self-harm can also be used as a form of self-punishment for something they have done or thought they have done or even been told they have done. Even something that they feel they have allowed to be done to themselves.

Anything that causes you harm, even the slightest harm, which in some small way makes you feel better emotionally, is self-harm.

The important thing isn’t to focus too much on the labelling, but to recognise when help is needed and find some support as soon as possible.

Self-harm can also be referred to as self-injury, the term you use isn’t important, understanding why you are doing it and finding help in dealing with the feelings which lead you to self-harm is.

Self-harming is not about enjoying pain

People who self-harm do not hurt themselves because it feels nice. When they feel that urge to harm, they may feel like they are numb and unable to feel any pain, this is because of the emotional turmoil they are going through and not because they are actually numb. Once they have self-harmed, they realise that they are not numb and the physical pain can feel unbearable.

Self-harm does NOT feel nice, it just feels better than the emotional pain because the physical pain distracts you so that for a little while you forget all about the emotional pain you were struggling with.  Self-harm isn’t nice and the person isn’t hurting themselves because it feels good, even if they themselves tell you that is the reason.

What should you do if someone you love is self-harming

Firstly, don’t make a big deal out of it. The chances are they’re already feeling guilty enough themselves. If they need medical attention for the injuries take them and if they need pain relief, make sure they get some. Sometimes people have been given stitches without being offered any pain relief because the professionals assumed that the process of having stitches would be enjoyable for the self-harmer and therefore didn’t need it. This just shows a complete lack of compassion and a total misunderstanding of self-harming.

Self-harming is another form of a panic attack so any tips for dealing with a panic attack should be helpful for the self-harmer in helping them distract themselves. Remember that self-harming is completely different and has nothing to do with feeling suicidal.

  • Try not to panic or overreact. The way you respond to them will have an impact on how much they open up to you about their self-harming.
  • Try to be non-judgemental
  • Let them know that you are there for them
  • Try to have empathy and understanding
  • Let them be in control of their decisions
  • Remind them of their positive qualities and the things they do well
  • Try to have honest communications

Useful Contacts

  • British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP)
    0161 705 4304
    Maintains a register of accredited CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) therapists.
  • British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP)
    01455 883 300
    Lists accredited therapists.
  • Elefriends
    A safe, supportive online community where you can listen, be heard and share your experiences with others.
  • Harmless
    User-led organisation for people who self-harm, and their friends and families.
  • Lifesigns
    User-led self-harm guidance and support network.
  • The Mix
    0808 808 4994 (helpline)
    Helpline and online support for people aged 16–25.
  • National Self Harm Network (NSHN)
    Survivor-led closely monitored forum for people who self-harm, and their friends and families.
  • NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence)
    0300 323 0140
    Provides guidance on health and social care.
  • PALS (Patient advice and liaison service)
    NHS department that supports service users to make complaints about their experience or treatment through the NHS. Further information on PALS can be found on NHS Choices.
  • Samaritans
    116 123 (freephone 24-hour helpline)
    Freepost RSRB-KKBY-CYJK, PO Box 90 90, Stirling, FK8 2SA
    Emotional support for anyone feeling isolated, distressed or struggling to cope.
  • Sane
    0300 304 7000
    Support and information about mental health problems, including online support.
  • Self-injury Support (formerly BCSW – Bristol Crisis Service for Women)
    0808 800 8088 (helpline Mon–Fri 7–10pm)
    0780 047 2908 (text support)
    Information and support for people who self-harm, including a self-harm diary and local support groups for men and women.
  • UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP)
    020 7014 9955
    Maintains a register of qualified psychotherapists.
  • YoungMinds
    0808 802 5544 (parent helpline)
    Information for parents and young people about mental health and wellbeing.

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