Content Warning: Self-harm, suicide. If you are in crisis, please call 911.
I am often told by doctors, "oh, I've never seen this..." or "you are one of the few affected by...". I laugh because I prefer to be one of the few who win the lottery. Instead, I am one of the few who experience random medical issues. For most, the onset of self-harm begins at thirteen. Not me. I am one of the few who started self-harming as an adult.
I was a new mother of a beautiful little boy, working a full-time job with my own car, with a steady boyfriend, and a solid group of friends. However, shortly after my Bipolar Disorder diagnosis, it all began to crumble.
I cannot tell you exactly when or why I began harming myself. But what I can tell you is I have worked hard through therapy to build the coping skills I needed to stop. But this journey is different for everyone. Today I share some of mine.
March 1 is Self-Harm Awareness Day. I figure this is an excellent time to shed light on the shushed and highly stigmatized self-harm. Though about 17% of people self-harm at some point in their lives, the entire subject is avoided. For me, I did what I could to cover the scars on my arms, telling people, "I fell through glass," or a "cat attacked me." I didn't give much thought to my excuses as I couldn't believe people had the gall to ask me about them. "Why did you do that to yourself" was always my favorite. As if I didn't feel bad enough.
The self-harm community hasn't quite settled on a universal emblem of observance. Some people wear an orange ribbon; some wear a butterfly or a beaded bracelet on the wrist. How you choose to express your understanding matters less than the understanding itself. The self-harming population is probably the most misunderstood group of our whole misunderstanding society.
You need look no further than the CDC, whose web page on the subject lumps self-harm with suicide, as if they were just different expressions of the same urge. It may be true that people who self-harm are more likely than others to attempt suicide. But I don't think the urge to self-harm is always the same urge that prompts suicide attempts. And I don't think it's helpful to lump them together.
As you may know, my go-to resource for mental health is the National Alliance on Mental Health. The NAMI page on self-harm says that people who never learned to control strong emotions or who have learned to hide those emotions may feel a release in self-harm. There's also a mood elevation that results from the endorphins stimulated by an act of self-harm. But self-harmers are not all the same. Some have never really felt emotions and engage in self-harm to excite some kind of feeling
Here's where we get into why self-harm awareness is so important. Those who engage in self-harm often feel ashamed. The shame becomes another strong emotion that they need to relieve. How do they relieve it? More self-harm. Like so many other mental health problems, it can slip into a vicious cycle of self-harm, shame, and more self-harm. The shame, of course, comes from the stigma. And it is the rest of us who are responsible for that stigma.
Which brings us to the first thing you can do to help someone who self-harms. Don't buy into the stigma. As NAMI says, "Self-harm is not a mental illness, but a behavior that indicates a need for better coping skills." People who lack skills in a particular area need training, not shame.
How to Help
How else can you help? First, according to NAMI, you need to be accepting. Listen, and take what the self-harmer says seriously, no matter how difficult it is for you to understand. Be there for the person. Above all, "Don't dismiss emotions or try to turn them into a joke." Don't say, "I get frustrated too, and I don't do that!"
Try to guide the person toward professional help. Unfortunately, self-harm is not uncommon, and several therapies can help a person acquire the coping skills needed to break out of the cycle. NAMI has a page on getting help, which is an excellent place to find a therapist.
On a personal note
It took me a long time to forgive myself for my father having to rush to the hospital with over one hundred self-inflicted wounds on my thighs and arms. They were superficial, but together it was a scary sight. Another time a friend brought me to the emergency room after I cut my arms deep enough, requiring staples. Self-harm isn't a joke. Nor should it be ignored. Those who self-harm are trying to communicate something. We may not realize why we are doing any of it, never mind knowing how to stop. So, we must get the help we need.
Resources for Self-Harm
Requesting a self-harmer promise to "just stop" is equivalent to telling an alcoholic the same. It takes more than willpower to stop, so forcing such a promise means possibly setting the person up for failure, regret, shame, and ultimately more self-harm.
There are great resources to help those who self-harm and those who care about them. An excellent place to start is the NAMI page on self-harm. There is also an organization called Self-Injury Outreach and Support, a nonprofit initiative between the University of Guelph and McGill University. Their page includes information guides, stories, advice, and research. Finally, a website called The Mighty sponsors a community of therapists and patients for conversation and support. Their self-harm resources page has a wealth of links to organizations.
Self-harm crisi info: HERE