I wonder if you have ever heard or have ever said...
-You are not fat, stop being silly!
-Oh my, you're trying to kill yourself.
-Why are you engaging in this stupid behaviour?
-We must tell everyone, immediately.
-You are so selfish.
-All you do is think about yourself.
-If everyone finds out, they'll think I'm a bad parent.
-Stop attention seeking.
-The whole world doesn't revolve around you.
-Pulling your hair out, have you gone crazy?
-You deserve to be in pain.
-You're a freak, we can't be friends anymore.
-You know you're pretty so why can't you believe it?
-Only girls cut, you're meant to be a man.
-You can stop, you're just selfish and don't want to.
-You're harming to fit in.
-Show me your arms.
Unfortunately all of the statements above are statements some of the young people I have worked with that struggle with self-harm have had said to them. This has been when they have either told someone they harm or they have experienced someone discovering they were struggling.
One young person shared with me; "The night I told my mum about my self-harm, she told me she didn't care and walked out of my room."
This is heartbreaking but this is the reality of some of the responses people receive. It shouldn't be this way.
Of course, it is important to recognise that some people respond in positive ways to disclosures of self-harm and are supportive, caring and try to understand the triggers behind the harming behaviour.
Telling someone about self-harm isn't easy. Its far from easy. It's often a secretive behaviour that becomes a habit and is highly addictive. It isn't just a thing teenage girls do, a phase an adolescent experiences and grows out of, or an attention seeking behaviour.
Someone who harms can be of either gender, of any culture or background and can be any age.
Self-harm can affect anybody.
The way we respond to a disclosures of self-harm is key.
If you are considering telling someone that you self-harm, I want you to know that you are braver than you think.
I want to acknowledge that deciding to take the step to tell someone about your self-harm is a big step. I want to remind you to be gentle with yourself in the lead up to this and the days that follow.
Once you've made the choice to tell someone, it may help to prepare yourself.
Think about who you trust and who it is you want to tell. Think about when you will tell them and try not to overthink how they may respond.
It may help to write down what it is you want to communicate. What is it that you want the person you're telling to know about your harming? What do you want to happen once you've told them?
By writing it down, if you can't find the words, you could show the person what you've written. This may help for them to understand without you feeling as though you need to explain yourself.
People may ask questions but do not feel as though you need to answer them all or even know the answers.
You do not have to show someone your self-harm if you are asked, unless there is a medical reason as to why they need to look.
Go at your own pace and speed.
Think about the way in which you're going to look after yourself once you have told them.
I understand it has taken all you've got within you to tell someone, be kind, be gentle. Have some things in place to distract you once you've told someone you're harming.
You may feel emotions you didn't expect to feel both good and bad once you have opened up. The response you get may have been better or worse than you've anticipated.
But do something to distract yourself once you have shared. Whether that be listening to your favourite music, drawing, solving a challenging puzzle, or watching your favourite film.
Support is out there. People care about you.
Being in recovery takes time but disclosing your struggles is the first step in that process.
You are braver than you know.
Responding to a Disclosure
It often takes weeks, months and sometimes even years for someone to find the courage deep within to expose their secretive behaviour.
They don't want to hurt anyone by what they are doing, that's why they've tried to keep it hidden. Tried to hide the deep agonising pain of life and act 'normal' around others.
Trying to put on a brave face, pretending life is fine. Isolated, alone and feeling the huge weight of their emotions, they try to do all they can to hide their harming behaviours. Self-harm is a physical response to an emotion.
It isn't selfish. It isn't attention seeking. You cannot just stop it, it becomes an integrated part of you. Just like brushing your hair, it can become a part of your routine. It's likely to be a habit and an addiction.
Often, when we first experience a disclosure of self-harm, we panic.
We don't understand.
Our brain races at a million thoughts per minute as we try to come to terms with what we have been told.
Try not to freak out. Even if you feel confused by all that is being said, try to keep calm and collective. Instead of immediately asking lots of questions, listen. And not only listen, hear what is being said.
Often when someone is harming, they may not be able to pinpoint how or why it started. As the days and weeks that follow the disclosure come and go, they are likely to need support. Whether that be from you, or someone else.
But in that moment of disclosure, There's a few important things to know:
Firstly, you don't need to know all the answers.
Secondly, do not make the person feel guilty.
Thirdly, if you need to tell someone else, explain this and who you'll be telling. Offer reassurance it'll only be on a needs to know basis who you tell. If you're a professional and your policy says parents need to be informed, support the young person in this process. This could be traumatic for them and potentially a very scary concept.
Fourthly, don't ask them to stop. If it was that easy they would.
But most importantly, thank them.
Thank the person disclosing that they chose to trust you and tell you. As so often, the moment they've said it, they may regret it. The thing they've had control over has lost an element. A layer of control may feel as though it has been lost but a sense of relief that someone knows may also be present.
In the days that follow, make sure you check in with the person. When you ask how they are, truly listen to what they say and don't say, as it's likely to indicate where they're at.
They may tell you everything is great and now they've told you, they tell you they've stopped harming. The likelihood is, they haven't.
Recovery from self-harm is an ongoing journey. When someone stops harming, they may relapse and should never be made to feel guilty if this happens. They may also replace one type of harming with a different form of harming and so it's important to equip them to find alternative methods to express their emotions, but to work with them at their speed.
And remember to be kind to yourself. If you need support, seek it.
It can be difficult to know what to say when you first receive that disclosure, so below are some things that may be of benefit...
Helpful responses to disclosures:
-You are valued
-You are not your self-harm
-How can I best support you?
-I don't have all the answers, what would you like me to know?
-Thank you for telling me, I understand it must have taken a lot to open up with me.
-I understand things are difficult at the moment. What would you like me to do to help?
-I'm not going to ask you to stop.
-You are not alone, I'm here to support you.
-I'm sorry to see you're hurting emotionally.
Before the conversation ends, move the person on from talking about self-harm. Talk with them about their hobbies or interests. Taking an interest in who they are, seeing them as a person and not seeing them as their self-harm.
Disclosures can be difficult for all but handled with sensitivity and care, can be the first step to someone harming to get the help and support required.
Finally; remember, don't judge. Choose to try and understand.
This article is written by Gill Briggs. She is an experienced youth and community worker and has a wealth of knowledge and experience of supporting young people and vulnerable adults around emotional wellbeing; in particular around self-harm. Having had her own personal struggles around anxiety, Gill is passionate about removing the stigma that still surrounds mental health. She seeks to support those she works with to rediscover their sense of worth, value and identity. In her spare time, Gill loves to spend time with friends, enjoys going to the theatre and often goes running to clear her head.
You can follow her on Twitter @gill_bee
If you'd like more information on how to support someone who self-harms, all our resources are currently available with a 10% discount in the Youthscape store. Use code NSHAD at the checkout.