Below is a talk I gave on the theme of self-harm to our 14-18 year olds for Self-Harm Awareness Week:
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When uncontrollable emotions hit you, how do you cope? Does counting to ten prevent anger? Does pouring out your heart to a friend ease inner turmoil? For as many as one in ten young people, self-harm will provide a way of coping when emotions become too overpowering to deal with as they turn that emotional pain onto themselves physically. Although the highest rates of self-harm are among young people, people of all ages and backgrounds are affected by this condition.
Family and friends might feel bewildered by this behaviour. Most will expect the person who harms to be able to explain why they have done it – even though they might not know themselves.
What is self-harm?
Self harm is “acting to deliberately injure yourself physically in an attempt to cope with, express or reduce intense or overwhelming emotions.” The exact form of which varies from “minor, occasional acts to more serious and regular harm that can require hospital treatment.”
Sufferers most commonly harm by cutting or burning their skin, hitting or punching themselves or taking substances that cause pain or discomfort. Others, less commonly, deliberately break bones or pull out hairs – known as trichotillomania, and also linked to obsessive compulsive behaviour – or participate in other damaging behaviours such as alcohol abuse, smoking, unsafe sex and even eating disorders. The choice of method, available instrument or routine of harm is often as individual as the sufferer, as well as whether harm is used as a form of punishment or to deal with whatever they are feeling at a particular moment.
Why do people hurt themselves?
The action of self-harming can be a way of regaining control when individuals are confronted with emotions or circumstances beyond their control. It forms a way of reducing uncomfortable feelings of tension and distress. If the sufferer feels guilty, harming might provide a method of self-punishment to relieve the guilt.
The addictiveness of the process can be a “quick fix for feeling bad”. Some clinicians suggest the release of endorphins – “feel good” chemicals – at the time of any physical injury helps self-harm sufferers to relax. Others theorise harming communicates how the person feels when they are unable to put into words what they are experiencing.
For some this might be acted out in response to their emotions, such as someone whose harm is linked to anger hitting something solid or smashing an item. Harming can also become a method of self-nurture – an enforced time out from anxiety cycles, such as those experienced by obsessive compulsive disorder sufferers who become anxious in checking and rechecking lists or actions, or going over overwhelming thought or emotion patterns.
How does self-harm affect individuals?
Self-harm is a temporary – and dangerous – solution to dealing with uncontrollable emotions. Harming using unclean objects poses obvious health risks but hte avoidance of dealing with difficult emotions by harming leaves the person continuing to struggle with those emotions unless they seek help or their circumstances alter.
Self-harm is usually a hidden behaviour, associated with feelings of guilt, shame and disgust of their actions on top of emotions already experienced. It can therefore provide only a temporary reprieve for sufferers, while making things worse for them in the longer term.
How can we support someone who harms?
In Matthew 22:37 and 39, Jesus says the greatest commandments are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “love your neighbour as yourself”. The Church’s first response to someone who has harmed or admitted to harming needs to be one of love.
For many young people, divulging the secret of their harm is a huge step forward. The next step is for others to support them as they work through the underlying emotions they are dealing with at their own pace. Although it might seem helpful to say “Stop hurting yourself. Do it for me”, this is really unhelpful and can make the sufferer feel even more guilty and ashamed, reinforcing the cycle of negative emotions.
Above all, encourage them to seek professional support.
What is someone is using self-harm to seek attention?
There are a lot of other ways you can get attention other than hurting yourself. So the first question to ask is “Who is to judge if this is attention-seeking behaviour?” and then, as you offer the same support as you would to anyone who self-harms, you can slowly start uncovering the reasons they are doing it.
That person has to learn – just as those who harm find better ways to cope with uncontrollable emotions – to develop better strategies for seeking the attention they feel they need.
Love is the key.
The path to recovery is not easy, and it can be frustrating for sufferers and their supporters, particularly when for every one step forward there might be two back. We can respond to those who harm by providing a compassionate attitude and ensuring those who harm are safe, cared for and treated as the individuals they are, not labelling them by their condition.