*Trigger warning (descriptions of self-harm).
If you, or someone you know is at risk of self-harming, please seek the assistance of a professional psychologist/psychiatrist. If the person is in immediate danger, contact emergency services now.
This post is a follow up to a previous post entitled “Why I Cut Myself, and What Helped Me to Stop” where I talk about my personal subjective experience with self-harming. I discuss why I self-harmed, as well as how I recovered.
I want to clarify some common misconceptions that seem to pervade around the topic of self-harm. If I have missed anything, please let me know.
1) Not everyone who self-harms is suicidal.
Whilst there is a definite relationship between self-harm, depression and suicidal ideation, they are not always correlated. One does not have to be suicidal to self-harm, and not all people who are feeling suicidal will self-harm.
There can be a plethora of reasons as to why someone may self-harm, which I have discussed here. That being said, it is a good idea to presume that the person self-harming is indeed struggling, and therefore needs the same level of care that you would provide to someone who is suicidal.
2) Self-harm is not just ‘cutting your wrists’.
People self-harm in many different ways, sometimes in multiple ways simultaneously. Cutting is the most recognisable form of self-harming behaviour and as such, can draw special attention from family, friends and carers who upon seeing the scars will take action.
However, there are other, less immediately obvious ways that people self-harm. These can include other direct methods of self-harm like: burning, piercing, biting, poisoning or striking themselves. Some more indirect, but still serious forms of self-harm come in the form of over or under eating, drug use (including alcohol and tobacco), the increase of risky or reckless behaviour, sexual promiscuity, self-sabotage in professional and romantic relationships, or personal neglect.
3) People self-harm for reasons other than to just ‘get attention’.
There is a general misunderstanding around self-harm (and suicide for that matter), that suggests that people will self-harm as a way to get attention. If someone prescribes to this belief, and therefore ignores the self-harm, there is a very real and significant risk to the welfare of the self-harmer.
Yes, some people will self-harm for attention, just like some will threaten suicide. But even if you suspect this to be the case, there is still an underlying cause to those actions. There is a reason that they are self-harming for attention.
It can be an easy out to presume that someone is self-harming for attention because that way you can justify not helping them. While I have discussed this before, that you should always look after your own mental health as a priority. How can you help someone else if you are not in a good place yourself?
Even if you think it’s just ‘for attention’, seek the advice of a professional. They are experts who are trained at discerning the seriousness of their client’s situations. SANE Australia has this, which is an excellent starting point. It has advice, testimonials and contact details for more information and help.
Self-harming behaviours can arise as a result of a plethora of circumstances. Mental illnesses like depression, borderline personality disorder and anxiety (among many others) are often correlated with self-harming. In addition, people may self-harm when they feel like their life is out of their control. Whilst it seems counter-intuitive that people would gravitate to a ‘negative stimulus’ such as pain, often self-harming is the one thing that they can do to reclaim a small amount of control over their situation.
I talk more about my (and other people’s) reasons for self-harming here.
4) Self-harm is more common than you think.
Due to the nature of self-harm, it is hard to get accurate data. There is an issue with under reporting, in part due to the potentially embarrassing nature of self-harm, the younger ages of those typically engaged in self-harm as well as the significance of the injuries caused by self-harm (unless it is significant enough to require medical assistance, it will not be recorded).
However, through combining anonymous surveys, suicide rates and hospital data, it is predicted that 6-8% of 15-24 year olds have engaged in self-harm in any 12 month period. 24% of females and 18% of males will report having engaged in self-harm at some stage of their lives. A deeper look at the rates of self-harm can be found on the Head space website and for American data on the Healthy Place webpage.
Personally, I never reported it to anyone, thus my data would not be recorded. I am sure that there are many others like me out there, who would self-harm and then clean up after themselves, hiding any evidence from everyone other than those who they chose to show it to.