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What is Self Harm?

Self-harm can be really hard to understand but it is a lot more common than some people think.

Self-harm is when somebody intentionally damages or injures their body. It is a way of coping with or expressing overwhelming emotional distress.


Sometimes when people self-harm they intend to die but often the intention is more to punish themselves, express their distress or relieve unbearable tension. Self-harm can also be a cry for help.


If you are self-harming, you should see your doctor, or at the very least call a helpline  for further advice.


Your doctor will usually offer to refer you to healthcare professionals at a local community mental health service for further assessment. This assessment will result in your care team working out a treatment plan with you.


Treatment for people who self-harm will usually involve seeing a therapist to discuss your feelings and thoughts and how these affect your behavior and well being. If you are badly depressed it could also involve taking antidepressant medication.


Why people self-harm.

Self-harm is more common than many people realize, especially among younger people. A survey of people aged 15-16 years carried out in the UK in 2002 estimated that more than 10% of girls and more than 3% of boys had self-harmed in the previous year.


In most cases, people who self-harm do it to help them cope with unbearable and overwhelming emotional issues, caused by problems such as:


  • social factors – such as being bullied, having difficulties at work or school, or       having difficult relationships with friends or family.
  • trauma – such as physical or sexual abuse, or the death of a close family           member or friend.
  • mental health conditions – such as depression or borderline personality               disorder.

These issues can lead to a build-up of intense feelings of anger, hopelessness and self-hatred.


Many people who self-harm do not want to end their lives. In fact, the self-harm may help them cope with emotional distress so they don't feel the need to kill themselves.


There are many different ways people can intentionally harm themselves, such as:


  • cutting or burning their skin
  • punching themselves
  • poisoning themselves with tablets
  • misusing alcohol or drugs
  • deliberately starving themselves (anorexia nervosa) or binge eating (bulimia        nervosa)

People often try to keep self-harm a secret because of shame or fear of discovery. For example, they may cover up their skin and avoid discussing the problem.


Therefore, it is often up to close family and friends to notice when somebody is self-harming, and to approach the subject with care and understanding. The signs may include unexplained injuries and signs of depression or low self-esteem.

Myths and Facts About Self-Harm.

The act of self-harm is surrounded by many myths or misconceptions that can hinder a person’s ability to get the help that they need. These misconceptions often add to the sense of shame that a person may already have regarding their actions.

 One of the more common myths is that self-harm is an attention-seeking act.

The fact is that people who do self-injure do so in secrecy. They do not advertise that they do this, and they often feel shame.


Another myth is that self-harming is something that only girls do. This is false, and the facts show that as many as 40% of individuals who self-harm are male. It is often believed that only teens self-harm. While a majority of self-harm cases involve teens, adults can and do self-harm as well.


Often, people think that people who self-harm are attempting to commit suicide. Again, this is false, as people use self-injury as a way to manage their emotions and stress and prevent themselves from committing suicide.


The misconception that self-harm is just another term for cutting is also confusing. While cutting is a form of self-harm, there are many other ways in which a person can injure themselves and still fall within this umbrella term.


Signs and Symptoms.

As with most conditions, there are certain signs and symptoms that indicate whether or not a person is guilty of committing self-harm. While some of these signs are obvious, such as scarring from cutting, other signs are less obvious or easy to recognize.


In addition to scars from cuts, there may be older scars, such as burns. Unexplained bruises, bald patches, or broken bones may also be indicative of self-harming behavior.


Other signs include wearing clothing that completely covers the arms and legs despite high temperatures, isolating oneself, and/or frequent claims of having accidents to explain injuries. Some of the symptoms associated with self-harm involve how a person speaks or perceives themselves.


The person in question may frequently speak of feeling hopeless or worthless. They may question their reason for being and their identity and/or behave in a way that shows impulsiveness and instability on an emotional level.


Help and Coping Options.

There are several potential ways to obtain help for self-harming; however, it all starts with talking to someone first, such as a friend or a medical professional. Although treatment is often dependent on several factors involving the individual, psychotherapy is often recommended. For some people who engage in this type of behavior, an inpatient treatment program may be necessary. If depression is a cause of the condition, medication may be given to treat the depression.


During and after obtaining help, both the individual and their family will need to learn how to cope with the condition in order to prevent its return. The individual must plan how to deal with emotions as well as situations that trigger the self-harming behavior. In addition, they should learn positive ways to go about expressing emotion.


Another way to successfully cope is to find and associate with supportive people while avoiding negativity, particularly in the form of people who perform self-harm or who promote that type of behavior.


Having a good support system is also crucial for families and friends who are coping with this condition.



Excellent resources and further reading :

With huge thanks to  Beth Mason.