Self-harming is a form of communicating internal distress. Picture: Fil e photo via Pixabay
In Ireland, almost 9,000 individuals present to hospital due to 11,000 self-harm incidents per year. This does not include those who self-harm at home.
I wasn’t aware of the phenomenon until I was a student nurse in England working in an A&E department, when a 16-year-old repeatedly came into the service. Over the years I got to know more about self-harm.
Self-harm is the direct, deliberate act of hurting or injuring your body, but without necessarily wanting to die.
It’s a way some people cope with intense or very difficult emotions, or overwhelming situations and life events. Another way of thinking about it that it is a form of communicating internal distress.
Common ways of self-harming include:
* Cutting skin on wrists, arms or legs
* Biting and scratching at skin
* Head banging and punching oneself
* Burning of skin
* Taking overdoses of drugs or medication.
Self-harming is often mislabelled labelled in ways that are ignorant and hurtful. Many times these labels are believed by health professionals, for example, that the person is weak or attention-seeking.
Having worked with individuals with self-harm, the behaviour is the communication of an individual being overwhelmed by how they are feeling right now, and this is a way they hope will help them feel better.
Some individuals who are self-harming can get feelings of relief (which can reinforce the behaviour) , but the feeling won’t last long.
Self-harming behaviours can become addictive and hard to stop.
Tell someone what is going on
If you self-harm, you may feel embarrassed about it, or worry that other people will judge you or try to make you stop if you tell them about it.
Many people who self-harm keep it a secret for this reason.
If you’re harming yourself, it’s very important to talk to someone you trust.
You could start with your GP, or Pieta House, who offer interventions for this e who self-harm.
Who is most at risk of self-harming behaviours?
Anyone can be at risk of self-harming behaviours, but self-harm is more common in young people.
Women are more likely than men to be hospitalised for self-harm.
Self-harm can be linked with different kinds of difficult emotions, or overwhelming situations and life events.
There is no clear reason why some people self-harm and others do not. It can be connected with difficult experiences including:
* Pressures at school or work
* Physical, sexual or emotional abuse
* Money worries
* Bereavement or grief
* Dealing with friends or family members who don't support their sexuality or identity
* Relationship breakups or losing friends
* An illness or health problem
* Childhood trauma, abuse or neglect
* Intense or difficult feelings, such as depression, anxiety, anger or numbness, that might be experienced as part of a mental illness
* Being part of a group that self-harms.
Things you can do — self help
It’s up to you to decide when to stop self-harming. It’s also up to you to decide if and who you want to talk to. Remember though, that it’s a lot easier on yourself if you can find someone you trust to talk things through with.
Some other suggestions to help you stop hurting yourself include:
Learning your patterns of self-harm. Keep a diary and note down what happened to make you feel that way. Over time you will see a pattern.
Learning what your triggers are. These are the things that make you want to hurt yourself. It could be places, certain behaviours in other people, times of day etc. Use your diary to note these down as well.
If you are part of a group with people who self-harm, find other people to be with and do things that you enjoy with.
Learning how you feel before you want to hurt yourself. Do you get physical sensations such as a racing heart, shallow breathing, feeling ill; feeling as though you aren’t in your body; or strong emotions like anger, or sadness or desperation?
Thinking about what sort of things you can do to distract yourself if you feel the urge to hurt yourself. Try exercise, music, talking on a helpline, having a very cold drink, drawing or painting.No matter how strange it may be, if it works for you it’s important.
* Looking after yourself — get enough sleep, good food and exercise.
* Getting professional help.
* Don’t ignore any bad feelings you have —have a plan for those times.
* Keep attending all your appointments with your mental health professional.
Worried about someone else?
If you've noticed scars, marks, or behaviour that concerns you, but you are not sure whether the person is self harming, talk to them.
Ask them if they would like to talk about what’s going on for them and be patient.
Remember they might not want to open up straight away, but letting them know you are there for them is a big help.
Show them you care, and that you are concerned. Support the individual to get professional help. This is scary stuff, so you will need support too.
Finally; remember ‘labels are for cans, not people’. Self-harm is not about ‘attention seeking’ but an expression of significant distress.
Dr Eddie Murphy runs a psychological and counselling service in Portarlington, Co Laois. If you are organising a speaker or training for school, community, voluntary, sporting or work groups, call Dr Eddie on 087 1302899 or go to www.facebook.com/ dr.eddie.murphy.psychologist