Hearing from someone that they are self-harming can be a very difficult thing to deal with. Even more so when the person is someone close to you that you care about. If this is something that you have experienced you might be wondering how you can help that person during this difficult time of their lives. It’s great that you want to help them on their journey to recovery and though it feels like something really difficult, there are a few things that you might think about doing to support them as well as a few things that might not be so helpful.
The first thing to remember is that if someone has chosen to tell you that they are self-harming then you will be someone that they trust a lot. It is not easy to disclose or tell someone for the first time about something very private like self-harm. The person may have considered for a long time whether to talk to you about it or not and the fact that they have disclosed to you, even though it might be difficult for both of you, might be the first steps to finding help and changing the situation. Try not to panic or over react, they are not alone in self-harming and neither are you as someone trying to support them. Self-harm is a coping mechanism but it does not necessarily mean that the person is feeling suicidal or mean that they are at serious risk.
It might sound simple but one of the most important things you can do when helping someone who self-harms is to listen. By giving the person space and time to talk about things and to have someone really listen to them can be one of the first steps in the recovery process.
While you listen and talk to the person about how they are feeling, you should not promise to keep everything they are telling you a secret. This does not mean that you are going to go off and tell everyone about what they have shared with you but it is an important part of making sure both you and the person who is self-harming stay safe. Confidentiality is about keeping things that you are told between the people involved, unless someone is at risk or in danger (this could be the person who is self-harming or anyone else). Be honest and tell them if you need to tell someone else.
If you believe that the person self-harming is in need of medical attention or has taken an overdose then you will need to tell someone, perhaps a teacher, youth worker or parent.
If the person mentions suicide, you must take it seriously and tell a responsible adult (teacher, youth worker etc.), even if they tell you not to. Perhaps suggest that you go to talk to someone together.
The person who is self-harming may be doing so because they are dealing with difficult emotions like anger, fear, worry, sadness, depression or feeling bad about themselves (low self-esteem). Self-harm can also be a kind of self-punishment for something that has happened to them, something that they have done or think they have done themselves.
Some practical things that you might do while supporting someone who self-harms could be,
- To find out more about self-harm and why someone might do this. You can do this by looking at the other information pages here at selfharm.co.uk. By knowing and understanding more about self-harm you will be less afraid to talk about it. There is a lot of stigma and myths about self-harm so the more you know about it the better you will be able to support someone.
- Ask them how they would like you to help them. It’s okay to ask questions and not know all the answers. The person who is self-harming is probably the one who knows best how they want to be supported, so just ask.
- Don’t accuse the person of being attention seeking, there are common misconceptions that someone who self-harms does it because they want people to notice them but the reality is that many people self-harm but do everything they can to ensure that no one else finds out. Also even if self-harm is being used by someone to get attention, that person is still struggling; self-harm is not a positive way to get the attention they are looking for and they need our support just as much as any other person.
- While you are there for them and you will do your best to support the person who is self-harming; remember that you are not able to do everything alone. You can encourage the person to think about seeking help perhaps from an understanding GP, parent, youth worker or teacher. Don’t force them to if they don’t want to. Just let them know that you are there for them and that there is more support out there when they are ready.
- Don’t tell them to stop. This might sound strange because of course we don’t want anyone we care about to be hurting themselves. However, because self-harm is a coping mechanism, it is something they have come to rely on to deal with difficult things at the moment. Other healthier coping mechanisms will need to be found before the person can stop self-harming and this process can take a long time.
- Don’t focus only on the self-harm or ask the person to show you their scars/injuries. You should instead try to look at the underlying issues or the reasons behind the self-harm. By helping them to talk about the emotions/feelings/thoughts that are leading to them hurting themselves perhaps you will be able to help them manage these things in a healthier way.
- Also try to remember how things were before you knew that the person was self-harming. They are still that same person. Don’t make everything you talk about or do be about self-harm. Do the things you were doing before you knew, like playing football, going shopping, or watching films together… The fact that they are self-harming and have told you about it is only a small part of your relationship with that person. You are not ignoring the fact that they have told you; as long as you are there to talk about the self-harm should the person want to, try to be as normal as possible. Don’t make your whole relationship about the fact that the person is self-harming. You should still be able to enjoy each other’s company without self-harm being the only thing you talk about.
- Find out about alternatives to self-harming to suggest that the person could try when they feel like hurting themselves. Practical things like snapping an elastic band on their wrist, squeezing ice in their hands or using a red pen to draw where it is they want to hurt. They could also try other things like writing down how they are feeling and tearing it up afterwards or doing something creative like drawing, writing poetry/songs to express the intense emotions that are making them feel like self-harming. As we said, self-harm is a coping mechanism, by developing other ways of expressing the difficult emotions perhaps the person will be able to rely on those rather than self-harming.
- Finally make sure that you take care of yourself. It is hard dealing with the fact that someone you know and care about is self-harming. You shouldn’t be afraid of seeking some support for yourself. Remember, you will be able to better support the person who is self-harming if you are taking care of yourself too.
It is natural to worry when someone you know and care about is hurting themselves. The reasons that they are self-harming can be varied and very complicated but it is very unlikely that this is your fault. You should not feel like you are responsible for making them stop or annoyed with yourself if they continue to self-harm even when you have tried all the things we have suggested. By ensuring the person knows you are there to talk should they need to, that you believe that they will be able to find other coping mechanisms and that they will not always need to self-harm can be a huge help in their journey towards recovery.