Understanding Self-Harm

Understanding Self-Harm

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by Janette Ward
by Janette Ward

This month our subject is self-harm. My experience with self-harm has been to facilitate groups that enable participants to share their experiences, receive support, not be judged, feel accepted, understand themselves better and look at alternative ways to express distress and create a plan to look after themselves.

Self-harm is a broad term which can take many forms. People may injure or poison themselves by scratching, cutting or burning their skin, by hitting themselves against objects, taking a drug overdose, or swallowing and putting other things inside themselves. It may also take less obvious forms, including taking unnecessary risks, staying in an abusive relationship, developing an eating problem, being addicted to drugs or alcohol – someone simply not looking after their own emotional or physical needs.

SNA1722A-682_1006713aThese responses may help someone to cope with feelings that threaten to overwhelm them. Painful emotions such as rage, sadness, emptiness, grief, self-hatred, fear, loneliness and guilt are all factors. These feelings can be released through the body where they can be seen and dealt with. Self-harm may serve a number of purposes. It can be about trying to stay alive – a coping mechanism for survival. It may be a way of getting the pain out, of being distracted from it, of communicating feelings that can’t be put into words or even into thoughts and has been described as an inner scream! It can also be a means of self-punishment or an attempt to gain some control over life. A person may feel ashamed, afraid or worried about other people’s reactions. People who self-harm often conceal what they are doing rather than draw attention to it.

A person who self-harms is likely to have gone through very difficult, painful experiences as a child or young adult. They might have been abused, neglected, separated from someone they loved, been bullied, assaulted or isolated. Experiences like these most certainly erode self-esteem.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, the UK has one of the highest rates of self-harm in Europe at 400 people per 100,000 of the population.

Research shows that rates of self-harm are higher amongst young people in the UK and that 1 in 15 young people have self-harmed, the average age of onset being 12.

Young people are under such scrutiny with exams, peer pressure, bullying, binge drinking, Social Media etc. It isn’t surprising that many of them are finding it hard to cope with some complex and often bewildering issues in their life.

Healthcare professionals, friends and family, sometimes mistakenly regard people who self-harm with mistrust and fear and see their behaviour as attention seeking and manipulative.

It is important that we treat people who self-harm with compassion and acceptance, and do not harshly judge them.

If you are self-harming, it is important to remember that you have choices and stopping self-harming is always possible now. There are things you can do to help you stop. Knowledge is power. Write about how you are feeling and what is going on for you (especially when you want to self-harm). Sometimes patterns can emerge; you can then become aware of your triggers and create action plans. Talk to someone you can trust. Join a self-harm support group. Work on building your self-esteem – remember you are not to blame for how you feel and self-harm is an expression of powerful negative feelings. Write down your strengths, achievements and things you are good at. If you can’t think of any ask someone who cares about you. Try to find ways to make your life less stressful by doing things you enjoy such as eating healthy food, getting plenty of sleep, doing some physical activity and spending time with people who care about you.

Find ways to safely express your anger. If I need to, I scream into my pillows or kick and thump them or scream when I am on my own in my car. I also save my chipped crockery and smash it outside against a wall. Creativity is a powerful tool to help combat despair – things like painting, drawing, writing, decorating, pottery etc.

If you need to harm yourself, perhaps consider a less hurtful alternative, for example squeezing ice-cubes, eating a hot chilli, having a cold shower or drawing red lines on your skin, etc.

There are organisations that offer information, forums, support groups and telephone help lines:   www.selfharm.co.uk; www.rcpsych.ac.uk; www.youngminds.org.uk; www.thesite.org/selfharm and the National Self Harm Network www.nshn.co.uk and the Samaritans free phone 116 123

We work with schools, colleges, universities and organisations delivering Wellness Recovery Action Plan Groups and Self-Harm Support Groups. For further details contact janette@circleswork.co.uk or www.circleswork.co.uk

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