Self-harm is when someone purposely hurts themselves, usually in order to cope with intense emotional distress.
How common is self-harm?
It is difficult to know how common self-harm is, as many people describe it in different ways and many will never ask for help. However, it is estimated around 3.8% of the population self-harm.
What are some of the myths and misconceptions about self-harm?
Unhelpful and false beliefs about self harm can prevent people from taking their own, or other's, problems seriously and make people feel ashamed. They can stop people getting the help they need and lead to the loss of friends, family relationships, jobs, homes and even lives.
Some common misconceptions include:
Self-harm should be ignored
Some people, including friends, family and even health professionals, describe self-harming as ‘attention-seeking’ or a ‘cry for help’ and think that caring or supporting someone who does this only makes them more likely to do it again. But in many cases this is completely untrue. Many people will do all they can to hide the fact they are self-harming; the opposite of attention-seeking.
It is true that some people self-harm as a way of showing how badly they feel inside, but this is often because they lack the ability to articulate it or because no one has taken them seriously. To dismiss people for this reason is unkind, callous and leads to serious harm or even loss of life.
I don’t self harm for other people. It is a coping mechanism and, yes, I know it is not a very good one - Jo
They say the nastiest of things… Things such as "I wouldn’t trust my kids with someone with mental health problems” despite me never so much as hurting a fly and during a time where I self-harmed - Lewis
Only young women self-harm
Although there is a higher proportion of young women who self-harm, it is something that can affect people of any age or gender.
I'd go home nearly every night and hurt myself, and then cry myself to sleep - Chris
How does self-harm affect people's lives?
Self-harm can bring short-term relief from difficult thoughts and feelings. However, in the long run it usually makes things worse. People become used to the pain they feel and require increasingly extreme methods of self-harm, which can get more and more dangerous. Some people have to deal with permanent physical health consequences due to self-harming including scars or internal injuries.
People who self-harm often feel a lot of shame about what they are doing and can become withdrawn in order to hide their behaviour. This may lead to isolation and loneliness, which can cause the person to feel they need to harm themselves even more.
I felt so low inside that I could not possibly picture a happy future for myself, and so I began to self harm and have thoughts of suicide. It affected my relationships with family and friends, I didn't want to socialise with anyone. My performance at school became worse, achieving lower exam grades and having poor attendance - Gemma
How can I help someone who is self-harming?
Listen, don’t judge
One of the most helpful things you can do is assure someone who self-harms that you understand they are struggling and that they can trust you not to judge them. Just to be able to share how they're feeling can be a huge relief.
Once I told her, sharing my experience, my feelings, my pain, my misery - my devastation became easier each time I did it - Anon
Learn about self-harm
There are lots of resources online which you can use to find out about self-harm. This may help you to understand what your friend or family member is going through and help you to feel more confident in offering support. Try starting with the Mind or Rethink Mental Illness websites.
Talking about your mental health for the first time can be a bit like learning to drive - there's a lot to think about all at once and co-ordinating it can feel hard. .... It could be a family member or someone you know who has been through similar things - Sarah
Ask them how you can help
Everybody is different and there is no one way to help someone who is self-harming. If you want to support a friend or loved one, one of the best things to do is ask them how.
Give them information about other types of support
Sometimes the support of friends and family is not enough. Letting them know about the support they can get from the NHS, private healthcare or organisations like Mind and Rethink Mental Illness can also be helpful.
As well as treatment provided by medical professionals, such as psychological therapies and medication, community based support related to lifestyle, education or social activities can also help someone stay well.
Remember you can’t force someone to get help. Repeatedly trying to do so before they are ready can actually do more harm than good.