Myth-busting: Self harm

People who self-harm are not necessarily suicidal or attention-seeking, but these are just two of the misconceptions you may come across. Negative stereotypes around self-harming can make people feel like they don’t want to come forward for help and advice. The person may be worried because they will be judged and that they will not be taken seriously. Here we look at the hype and the reality

Self-harming is attention-seeking

Wearing neon coloured clothes and running down the high street whilst singing as loud as possible would be attention-seeking, but self-harming is very private and personal. People who self-harm often go to great lengths to cover up their injuries. The attention that self-harming does bring is often negative and increases levels of distress. Positive attention, such as listening and caring can help somebody who is experiencing distress and dealing with the pressures of everyday life. “For me my self-harm was private, not a cry for help, but a need for people to understand how difficult things are for me at that time, my emotional pain is very real to me” (Robert, 41).

People who self-harm are suicidal

People who self-harm are not usually trying to kill themselves. For many it’s a coping mechanism used to survive – not die. Although there is a relationship between self-harm and suicide many more people self-harm than kill themselves – it is the feelings behind the stress they want to get rid of. However, some people who self-harm also have suicidal feelings, or are not sure if they want to live or die as a result of an episode of self-harm. In addition, some forms of self-harm can lead to accidental death.

It’s only a teenage thing – they will grow out of it

Whilst many people’s first experience of self-harm happens in their teenage years it does affect people of all ages, male and female, irrespective of sexuality, race, culture, religion, and from all backgrounds. If somebody is hurting themselves, it is a sign that something is seriously bothering them. They need help and somebody to listen to them. If not the problem may become more severe over time. “I first started self-harming as a teenager but very superficially. Then I stopped until a major trauma sent my life out of control when I was 35. I now use self-harm as a fight to keep me alive”

People who self-harm could stop if they wanted to

Self-harm can become a habitual or addictive behaviour for some people, telling somebody to “just stop it” will not work and could possibly alienate them further.

People who have self-harmed have been abused

Whilst some people who have been physically, sexually, or emotionally abused may self-harm, it would be wrong to assume that is the case for everybody. There are many different triggers and often people find it difficult to pinpoint the exact thing that caused them to self-harm in the first place. For many, self-harming is a way to cope – to release tension, stress or pressure. Seeking professional help can enable those who self-harm get to the root of the problem.

Self-harm is when you cut yourself

As already mentioned cutting is only one form of self-harm and although it is one of the most common reported forms, there are other ways that people may hurt themselves intentionally.

People self-harm to fit in or be cool

People self-harm in response to emotional distress. Thinking that somebody is burning or cutting themselves just to be ‘cool’ suggests that there might be other problems. If somebody self-harmed once to fit in with mates at school that could be seen as experimentation, repeatedly continuing to hurt themselves shows that there is an underlying emotional problem that needs to be addressed.

The wound isn’t that bad – so the problem can’t be that bad

If somebody has the courage to tell you that they self-harm it is incredibly important to them that you take them seriously, regardless of how severe (or not) the injury is. Your reaction may have a tremendous impact on them, so tread carefully.

If you self-harm you have Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

BPD (also known as Emotionally Unstable Disorder) is a complex condition and there is a lot of debate among mental health experts about what it is and how to treat it. Self-harm can be a feature of BPD but only as part of a complex set of other Behaviours. Even if someone is diagnosed as having a BPD they’ll still need treatment and support that deals with the underlying emotional issues and patterns of behaviour – as with all mental health problems.

You must enjoy it, or you wouldn’t do it.

Everyone whether they self-harm or not, has a different pain threshold. Some people can endure the most intolerable levels of pain, whilst others may have a hypersensitivity to even the slightest injury or ache. When someone has the urge to harm, they may feel as though they are numb and not able to feel pain – this is because of the emotional intensity they are experiencing.

Once the act of harming has taken place, they will realise they are not numb, and feel the pain as much as anyone would. It will be at this point in the process that someone may be receiving treatment, and this needs to be fully considered. There have been reports of people having stitches without local anaesthetic, after professionals assumed the process of having stitches would be ‘enjoyable’ for a self-harmer.

Everyone hurts, self-harmers included. It’s not an enjoyable way to cope, but it may feel necessary at times.

People who self-harm are mentally ill

People who self-harm do so to deal with emotional distress, therefore most people who self-harm are probably not mentally ill. However, they may be depressed, have personality difficulties, be under extreme life circumstances (homelessness, bankruptcy etc.) find it difficult to get on with other people or have problems with alcohol and/or drugs. What is important is that they are all people with feelings that they are struggling to manage and could do with some support.