What is self-harm?
Sometimes painful emotions can be overwhelming. Feelings of being powerless to change things or unable to cope with such strong feelings leads some people to self-harm as it seems the only way of expressing and dealing with very difficult feelings. It often feels like the pain of self-harm can, for a short time, take away the other pain. We often think of self-harm as cutting, but it includes all ways in which a person may abuse, hurt, injure or harm themselves.
Research tends to suggest that although one in 12 young people self-harm, the real figure is probably greater than that.
How do I know if someone is self-harming?
Often someone self-harming will be spending unusual amounts of time on their own; they may be tearful, anxious or irritable, they may show signs of not caring about themselves, such as not eating properly or enough, not sleeping, general neglect; anxieties about performance, school work, or about themself in the form of poor body image or lack of self confidence.
Other signs to look out for include the wearing clothes that cover up injuries from self-harm, avoidance of activities such as swimming that might expose such sites, or wearing of loose clothes to cover up weight loss.
What is self-harm about?
Sensitive, innocent, vulnerable people struggle to get their needs met in such a way that others will not feel hurt or upset. It is almost impossible to do this, so they end up suppressing many of their own needs and feelings. To the outside world they are cheerful and all seems well with them, but on the inside they are struggling. As the pressure of keeping up this facade grows, they increasingly feel a crisis of identity. They want to fit in but at the same time struggle to be themselves and know their own mind.
Contrary to the belief of some people, feelings do not just evaporate if we ignore them. They build up until they reach a point at which any trauma, loss or change might trigger a crisis of low self-esteem and then the feelings may become overwhelming. Then there is a need to find a way to release those feelings, masking or even avoiding the pain.
Even though self harm may seem to others to be destructive, for those concerned it does give short term relief from the constant suffering within. It may even confirm for the person that they are alive when they feel dead inside.
In a large scale research by the charity BEAT of 600 16 to 25 year olds, almost half of young people with eating disorders state bullying as a contributory factor to their condition.
Of those, 91% said they had been bullied, while 46% said they believed that bullying had contributed to their eating disorder.
For further information on the current research by Beat see BBC News
How do eating disorders start?
Eating disorders can seem to provide a way of taking back control, gaining a (false) sense of control and pseudo self esteem. People with eating disorders know that they are not mad or bad, but very unhappy.
The eating disorder seems to provide a solution to some of life's problems, but the solution becomes a problem in itself and self esteem plummets even further. There are many reasons for this, and as the charity Beat has found in their research, bullying may be a common factor for some.
How to help
When someone has an eating disorder, or is self harming in any way, it is important to remember that this is their way of coping with difficul feelings, it is a crutch. Take away that crutch and they will probably not be able to cope. Telling them not to self-harm is counter productive and not supportive, however frightening for the carer. Instead it is important to help them to find more constructive ways of coping and with life's experiences and feelings.
The person who is self harming lacks a sense of self worth. It is important for them to discover that they have rights:
- to express their feelings
- to make their own decisions
- to be treated and spoken to with respect.
There may be many reasons why a person feels bad about themself and why self harm has become their companion and the only thing they can rely on to release the suffering. Their internal critic will only be silenced if new messages are allowed in. That will take patience and perseverance, time for them to trust again that they are 'good enough'.
People who self-harm in any way need to feel they can talk to someone they trust. They need to be heard, not judged, supported in finding other ways to cope. In extreme cases of cutting or self injury, they need to have wounds looked after and helped to know how to protect themselves from infection.
It can seem scary and very worrying to know a loved one is self-harming in any way. The way forward to help them is to show care, not worry, and support not blame.
Talking to a counsellor about feelings can often ease pressure and strain, reduce the need to self-harm and assist in finding different ways to cope.