5 ways to help someone who self-harms.

Discovering someone you love hurts themselves is a difficult experience. The deliberate infliction of pain upon oneself is something that is difficult to understand, but empathising with the personal reasons behind an individual’s behaviour is actually unnecessary when it comes to supporting them. Here are five things to remember when supporting someone who self-harms; I hope they make your situation a little easier.

#1 : Avoid judging or shaming.

“Do you know what you’re putting your family and friends through?”
“Don’t you realise how awful it looks?”
“What will people think?”

The reason for my self-harm was the inability to handle my emotions. Overwhelmed with feelings of guilt and shame, self-harm gave me a brief respite from the self-inflicted mental torment. Whenever others shamed or judged me for my actions, my reaction was to hurt myself more. From my conversations with others, this is a common after-effect of phrases such as these. Stop using them — they help nobody, least of all the person who needs support.

#2: Listen to the person.

This is the key to helping anybody, in any situation. When discussing my mental issues, it often felt like the person talking to me was uninterested in supporting me; they just wanted the self-harm to stop. My need was to talk about my emotions, not for someone to tell me how they felt, and it was rare to find someone who didn’t need to try to fix me after hearing my story.

Think about when you converse with people. How often do you truly listen to what they say? Do you take in what they are telling you, or are you just waiting for your turn to talk? Active listening takes effort, it requires patience and that is a skill that takes time to master. Think of your body language; have you adopted a closed-off posture, such as crossed-arms? Are you making eye contact, reacting to what you are being told? Chances are that your body language is giving off signs that you are uninterested in what your conversant is saying, so try to be aware of how you may be presenting yourself.

#3 : Many people who self-harm are used to coping alone.

If it appeared people weren’t focused on hearing my story, my approached changed to telling the person whatever they wanted to hear. My mental health was the most dominant and important thing in my life and it hurt when people appeared not to appreciate that. If someone tries to open up to you, please remember how important it is to them and make the effort to listen properly.

A common reaction to the discovery of self-harm is to hide razors, knives and other implements that can be used to cause harm. This is an understandable reaction, but it is both pointless and counter-productive. If somebody wishes to harm themselves, they will find a way to do so. By hiding items that are commonly used, all you are doing is showing the individual who self-harms that you do not trust them, and it is very patronising. Similarly, not doing activities or talking about certain subjects because you feel the person who self-harms “can’t handle it”, whilst understandable, is not helpful.

#4 : Learn basic first-aid.

Finding someone you care about in the moments following an act of self-harm can lead to a maelstrom of emotions, primarily confusion, distress, panic and worry. What you need to do is detach emotion from the situation, maintain a calm head and, if necessary, focus on treating the wound. Knowledge of basic first aid is essential, especially if it is a bad injury. If it is a cut, apply pressure to the wound and, if possible, keep it above the level of the heart. If it is a burn, run it under cold water for between 10 and 30 minutes. If it is a moderate to severe burn, cover it with Clingfilm — this will help prevent infection. Get it looked at by a professional. Learn how to keep cuts and wounds clean to avoid infection. All basic things, but helpful to know.

#5 : Focus on the root cause.

This may be the hardest point to get your head around, but you need to: Self-harm is NOT the problem. Self-harm is a reaction to other issues in someone’s life. Those issues are what they need support with. Getting your head around this will enable you to support your loved one better. This is where the ability to listen is crucial.

The underlying issues could be anything: sexual abuse, bullying, financial worries, stress of exams or work, maybe even just low self-worth. If your child is being bullied or is struggling at school, find out why and support them as they wish to be supported. If it is low self-esteem, focus on helping them to see their worth as an individual. If it is some form of abuse, then, whatever you do, BELIEVE them.

Ask the individual what support they want, if any. Ask what you can do to help. It is good to offer suggestions, but only do so if requested, and avoid demanding they do something they don’t want to do. Make your loved one aware of the options they have, including therapy, but refrain from making demands.

The key to everything is support. No-one can promise you that this will be an easy process. Even with the greatest support in the world, it can take a long time for somebody to stop self-harming. Self-harm is the sister of addiction, and as much as someone addicted to alcohol knows where the nearest drink is, a person who self-harms always knows ways to hurt themselves.

The individual is in control of their self-harm. What they need support with is rebuilding their self-worth and their confidence. What they need most is patience and support while they learn how to understand their emotions and how to take control of their life. Make that the focus of your support.

It has been years since my last cut, but in times of stress or upset, it still goes through my mind that self-harm can provide a solution. However destructive it may be, that appeal will always be there. No-one will never be an ex-self-harmer, but today I’m someone who hasn’t self-harmed in a few years, and that’s good enough for me.