With an average of one in ten people self-harming, it’s important that we’re all aware of the facts, the definition, and how we can help others. You may think that self-harm purely means somebody cutting themselves. This is not always the case; self-harm can describe many things people may do to themselves whilst experiencing overwhelming emotions.
The issue of self-harm is complex both from a definitional perspective and in relation to the scarcity of data regarding frequency and patterns of self-harm in Australia. There is no ‘universal definition’ of self-harm and additionally, there are diverse views concerning the reasons or risk factors for self-harming behaviours. In general, self-harm (sometimes referred to as self-injury) is understood to involve a person deliberately causing him or herself physical pain as a means of managing difficult or painful emotions, or as a way of communicating their distress to others. There are many forms of self-harming behaviours. Reckless driving and other high-risk behaviours can, in some cases, be indicators of self-harm for example. The act of self-harming is not directly or necessarily an attempt by a person to end their life (although acts of self-harm can result in disability or death in severe cases of physical injury). The relationship between self-harm and suicidality is complex -Self-harm is a ‘deliberate injury to oneself. It is usually done in secret and on places of the body that may not be seen by others. It may be a way to express emotional pain. Some people who self-harm say that turning their emotional pain into physical pain can bring relief. Any form of self-injury can become addictive.
Myths Surroundings Self-Harm
Ways in which people may harm themselves vary, but the most common ways include cutting, burning, punching and pinching oneself. Other ways people may self-harm (without being fully aware that it is a form of self-harm) is by excessive use of drugs and alcohol. People go out repeatedly overusing drugs and alcohol unaware that in fact they are self-harming. Self-harm often happens when someone is feeling angry, frustrated or very upset. It is important to reflect on what caused that emotion to try to prevent further self-harm. Any action that eases the emotional pain by causing physical pain can be thought of as self-harm.
It’s important to remember that people who self-harm don’t enjoy it. They see it as something they need to do to cope with their emotions. Self-harm tends to decrease the severity in which certain negative emotions are felt, at least for a while – this is the addictive part. It does not take long for those emotions to come back and the individual may feel the need to self-harm again to make those negative feelings go away.
Myth: People only self-harm for attention.
Self-harm can be very private. Most people who self-harm make a lot of effort to cover it up. Others may be open about their harming as a way to get help. Simple attention (particularly if people are critical of the person self-harming) can make matters worse.
Individual motives for self-harming behaviour are diverse. For instance, they may reflect a short or long-term response to emotional difficulty, low self-esteem, anger, isolation, grief or traumatic life experiences including childhood emotional, physical or sexual abuse. Self-harming behaviours typically commence in adolescence, although this may not be the case for all individuals.
Self-harming behaviours may be linked with mental illness, in particular depression, anxiety, personality disorders, phobias, conduct disorders and substance abuse. It has been suggested that self-harm is a ‘phenomenon in and of itself’ as self-harming behaviours can reflect the level of a person’s distress independent of mental illness.
Other research suggests that individual, social and environmental influences may contribute to a person’s risk of self-harm. Influences can include: poor problem-solving skills, impulsivity, emotionally and physically abusive environments, war and poverty. However, some people who self-harm have no experience of these factors.
Myth: People who self-harm are always suicidal.
Self-harming is used as a coping mechanism to survive, not to die. Obviously, there is a link between self-harm and suicide, but many more people self-harm than take their own life. Some forms of self-harm can also ultimately result in death with no intention. Although there is a link, not every person who self-harms is suicidal.
Not everybody who has a mental health condition self-harms and not everybody who self-harms has a mental health condition.
Those who do self-harm may be referred to a mental health professional to get extra help, but this does not always result in a diagnosis.
Every year, 1 in 5 females and 1 in 7 males harm themselves.
Around half of those who self-harm begin when they are around 14, continuing into their 20s.
The UK has the highest self-harm rate of any country in Europe.
One third to half of teenagers in America have self-harmed in one way or another.
70% of teens who self-harm have made at least one suicide attempt. Up to 55% had made multiple suicide attempts. (healthyplace.com/abuse/self-injury/self-injury-self-harm-statistics-and-facts/) Evidence from Australian studies suggest that 6-8% of young people aged 15-24 years engage in self-harm in any 12-month period (8,9). Lifetime prevalence rates are higher, with 17% of Australian females and 12% of males aged 15-19 years, and 24% of females and 18% of males aged 20-24 years reporting self-harm at some point in their life (10). The mean age of onset is approximately 17 years (10). While suicide is more common among young men, self-harm is more common among young women.
How do I help somebody who self-harms?
You may know and love somebody who self-harms, and there are plenty of ways you can help. Firstly, let go of any anger you may feel about this person deliberately hurting themselves. It may be difficult for you to witness, but they do this as a way of expressing emotional pain. Anger from you will not help them, it could, in fact, make the entire situation worse. An important factor in recovery is getting to the root of the issue that is causing the emotional pain in the first place. It’s important to remember that some people need years of therapy to fully stop self-harming (as it is their coping mechanism.) Recovery is a long and painful journey, so do not expect them to instantly stop tomorrow. Ask how they are feeling, with no judgement. Do not make them feel guilty. Although everybody would like to help a loved one, it may be best to reach out to professionals, including your GP initially, for additional support.
To read a personal account and more information on self-harming click here