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Understanding Self-Harming Behaviour

What is Self-harm?
Self-harm refers to deliberate acts that inflict some level of pain or injury upon oneself.
Self-harm can include: cutting, scratching, biting, hitting one’s head, pulling hair, burning, punching and some feel that certain types of piercing and tattooing can also constitute self-harm. Additionally, it can involve the use of drugs or alcohol.
 
Why do people do it?
Self-harm tends to be a response to extreme psychological distress or strong emotional pain. Those who do it, often hurt themselves to:
 
            ▪ Cope
            ▪ Gain relief/escape
            ▪ Gain control
 
When the body is injured in some way the brain has a tendency to focus on the physical pain and thus, this avoids the need for the person to think about whatever it is that is upsetting them. Obviously, though, this is a short-term ‘solution’ and doesn’t deal directly with the underlying problem.
 
Some comments from people who have self-harmed are:
“I can control this…I can do this…I have control over something.”
“It stopped me going one step further and killing myself.”
“You can block everything out.”
“There was no-one to talk to...”
“It’s a way of saying to someone; this is how much I am hurting.”
 
 
A common myth about self-harm is that people only do it for attention. Although a small minority of people may do this, most do it in private and hide the scars
 
 
Who is most at risk?
Self-harming behaviour tends to be more prevalent in females and there is a higher risk level for people who have suffered abuse or neglect; those who come from dysfunctional families and those with poor attachment to their parents; Adolescents in general tend to be at higher risk, as do those with a mental health issues (e.g. Depression, anxiety) and those suffering conflict with peers.
 
What to do
People who self-harm are at a higher risk of attempting suicide than the general population, so it’s important to respond in a helpful and appropriate way.
 
 DON’T panic, over-react, shout, punish, scream or threaten. All of these responses are understandable if a loved-one is self-harming, but they often make the person feel worse about themselves. Anger is often perceived as disapproval, so trying to maintain your calm is important.
 
 DON’T minimise or trivialisetheir feelings. Comments like: “Just get over it!” or “What have you got to be sad about?!” are common, but can actually cause more harm than good. The self-harmer feels like their problems are not important and will be unlikely to tell you if things get worse.
 
 DON’T argue about their reasons for self-harming.
 
 DON’T try and give ultimatums or force them to simply stop the self-harming. Although this is what we all want to happen, simply removing the self-harming as a coping strategy can often mean the person has no other way of dealing with their psychological distress which can increase their risk of suicide
 
DO accept that whatever the person’s reasons for self-harming they are important to that person.
 
DO respond in as neutral and caring a manner as possible. Just as getting angry can make the person feel worse, so can making them feel guilty. Comments like:
 “Do you know what this is doing to the family?!” or “How can you do this to yourself!?” are understandable, but can make the self-harmer feel worse about themselves and what they’ve done to themselves.
A more helpful response is CALMLY saying something like:
 
I can see you must be feeling really upset about _________ and I really hate to see you hurting yourself. Let’s talk about what we can do to make things better”
 
 DO Seek help from a trained professional. If you are unsure what the first step might be – speak to your School Psychologist or your family Doctor. (Additionally, see ‘further information and support’ below).
 
 DO make yourself available to spend time with and to listen to the person.
 
 
Waiting for the self–harming to resolve itself or hoping that ‘It’s just a phase’ are not good options and can put the person at greater risk.
 
****If you are concerned that the young person is in immediate danger of attempting suicide, call the Mental Health Emergency Response Line - 1300 555 788 (all hours) or ‘000’