Not many people know that, as well as being St David’s day, March the 1st, is Self-Injury Awareness Day. The chances are that you know somebody who self-harms or has done so in the past, whether you are aware of it or not.
Self-harm can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, religion, race and culture - it is certainly not something that only affects teenage girls.
Statistics show that around 1 per cent of the population self-harm, with women more likely to do so than men. Recent British research suggests that 1 in 10 teenagers have self-injured, although it is important to remember that people who self-harm can be of all ages and do come from all walks of life
What is self-injury?
Self-injury, also often called self-harm, can be described as an act of non-suicidal, yet very deliberate damage against oneself. This is often done in order to cope with an overwhelming situation or emotion. It is not usually just a one off occurrence, but a repeated and regular behaviour. People who self-harm use many different ways to injure themselves: cutting and burning tend to be the most common forms of self-harm, but there are many others, too. Some people will deliberately hit their head; they might scratch or pick their skin, bite themselves, pull their own hair, interfere with wound healing, or they might use asphyxiation or take poisonous substances without suicidal intent. Not all self-injury results in physical marks or scars. Also, the physical severity of the injury does not usually relate to the amount of emotional distress that a person is in, although often an individual’s self-harming can become worse over time.
Why do people self-harm?
Although self-injury as such is not suicidal behaviour, it can lead to hospitalisation or in extreme cases, even death. Also, self-harming is not a condition in itself, but it is usually a symptom of underlying issues and it can also often be an indicator for other underlying mental health problems, such as depression. This doesn’t mean that people who suffer from depression self-harm, it tends to be the other way round: we know that people who self-harm are usually more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and lower self-esteem than those who do not. As mentioned earlier, self-injury as such doesn’t usually start out as suicidal behaviour, however, it may lead to future suicidal thinking and some people who self-injure may indeed go on to attempt suicide in the future.
People self-harm for a variety of reasons, which are as varied as people themselves. Very often however, people who self-harm say that they do so in order to release tension and to cope with emotional trauma and overwhelming psychological pain. Some people state that they self-harm out of the need to gain control over painful emotions or situations where they feel very much out of control. Yet others report that they self-harm as a form self-punishment. In either case, it is impossible to generalise the reasons why people self-injure, and often the reasons and their behaviour can also change over time.
How can you help somebody who self-harms?
If you know somebody who self-harms, remember to treat them with the same kind of respect and compassion you would have for anybody else who is going through an emotionally difficult time.
Remember that self-injury is often a coping mechanism that people use to deal with emotional stress; it is not just a means of acting out or attention seeking and because of this, people cannot just stop self-injuring until they have alternative coping mechanisms in place. The road to recovery can be a very long and difficult one, and telling someone to stop self-injuring or asking them to make promises will most likely only make things worse.
How can counselling and psychotherapy help?
A good first step can often be to initially find an alternative to a person’s current behaviour that isn’t as physically damaging as the current one. For example, sometimes people who have previously cut themselves start using rubber bands to snap at their skin; this of course is only the substitution of one painful action for another and as such doesn’t achieve much. However, as the sessions progress, therapy can uncover the reasons as to why a person self-harms and teach them different ways of coping with a specific emotion or situation instead. Even where a person has been self-harming for years, therapy is usually immensely successful and can very soon lead a person to take the small steps necessary to change how they have so far been dealing with their difficulties.
Also, remember that if a family member or loved one self-harms, you might find it beneficial to talk to a therapist yourself to help you better cope with the situation.
About the author:
Christine Schneider is BACP accredited and UKRCP registered independent counsellor and psychotherapist, providing therapy for individuals, couples, families and small groups. She also provides supervision services for other counsellors, therapists and those in the caring professions.
Christine works mainly in private practice at The Therapy Room on Oxford Road in Cambridge and also provides corporate services as well as online and telephone counselling via Cambridge Therapy Centre. In order to book an appointment either contact reception at the Therapy Room, or if you would like to talk to Christine directly, please go to www.cambridgetherapycentre.co.uk