Content warning: this piece discusses topics and details relating to self-harm. Names have been changed for privacy.
A Lancet Psychiatry study found that, in 2014, 6% of 16–74-year-olds living in England had self-harmed, which is equivalent to more than one in 20 people. In young women aged 16–24, this figure is one in five. And yet, self-harm is still a topic that’s often considered ‘taboo’, surrounded by myths, stigma, and stereotypes that make people afraid to ask for help for fear of negative attention. So, it’s time to clear up some of the myths and misconceptions about self-harm.
This may be one of the most pervasive myths surrounding those who self-harm, and one that dismisses and invalidates the emotional anguish that they experience. Many people who self-harm feel ashamed and go to great lengths to hide their injuries from others, as often the attention that self-harm brings is negative due to stigma. The reasons why people self-harm vary immensely and are personal to each individual.
Emily, 29, who lives with depression and CPTSD, says: “Self-harm is a coping mechanism for when I’m experiencing extreme emotions that cannot be relieved by anything that isn’t destructive. Also, when I am dissociated and not able to connect to the real world, it grounds me.”
It’s also important to address our perceptions of “attention-seeking”. When someone sneers that “people who self-harm just do it for attention”, we can feel the need to prove them wrong. But why do we view this through such a negative lens? Often people don’t have the words, or the confidence, to say that they need help. While the last thing many people who self-harm want is attention, for others it may be a call for help. When someone is trying to communicate that they are in pain, they need validation and support, not ridicule and dismissal.
Typically, when people hear ‘self-harm’, the first thing they think of is cutting. While this is a common method of self-harm, it is not the only way that people can cause damage to themselves, either internally or externally. Other forms of self-harm to be aware of include overdosing and substance misuse, excessive exercise, or harming themselves through eating disorders.
Some people’s experience of self-harm can be more isolated, related to a specific situation, and may stop once that has resolved. Others may self-harm as a long-term coping mechanism. Similar to how some people crave cigarettes or alcohol in times of great stress, others may find an emotional release from self-harm, which could become habitual, or even addictive.
“When I was younger, I was genuinely addicted to it and would self-harm every day at some points,” says Emily. “I didn’t know how else to deal with emotions.”
Ivy, 30, who has struggled with severe depression throughout her life, says: “One of the biggest myths around self-harm is that it’s just teenagers and young adults who do it. A lot of self-harmers carry on much further into adulthood.”
A culmination of the emotional, hormonal, and physical changes in teenage years can mean that this age group is more likely to become overwhelmed and use self-harm as a way of coping, especially if there are other difficulties going on in their lives. But self-harm can begin or stop at any age. Claire, 28, shared her experiences of her daughter Anna with me.
“When Anna was only three years old, she began hitting herself on the head when she became overwhelmed. I was very concerned and searched for counsellors to help Anna but, due to her age, there wasn’t any support that they could provide, which was very upsetting. I talked with Anna about expressing emotions and tried to validate any feelings she had. When she started school there was an incident where Anna was playing with another child and an accident happened that upset the other child. Anna’s way of dealing with that was to slam her fingers in the door. She was trying to hurt herself to make things right.
“It hasn’t happened again but you can see when she gets upset or frustrated she does bang her fists on herself. It is her struggling to deal with difficult emotions.”
Some people who self-harm may have suicidal thoughts, but many do not. The intent behind self-harm and suicide can be very different: one is a coping mechanism, and one is a desire to end their life. In this way, they could even be said to be at opposite ends of the scale, and each require a different approach to treatment.
It’s important to be aware that some people’s self-harm may escalate over time, but for many their level of self-harm will remain consistent. For example, I self-harmed frequently for more than 10 years: I never required hospital treatment and my self-harm never increased in severity. This isn’t to minimise the seriousness of it, but more to make you aware that not all those who self-harm will require hospital treatment, and hopefully in time people can find alternative, healthier coping mechanisms.
Telling someone that they can ‘just stop’ is an unrealistic expectation that they often won’t be able to live up to. And for some, who may use self-harm to cope with extreme feelings, it can even be dangerous to abruptly cease all self-harm as they may be left without an outlet. It’s important to support them in finding safer ways of coping – this is likely to involve working with a therapist. Attempting to prevent someone from self-harming may mean that they use riskier methods to self-harm, or feel unable to come to you with issues.
Often self-harm is a symptom of another issue. My self-harm was completely entangled with my eating disorder, as a symptom of that illness. Once my eating disorder was addressed and I recovered, the daily self-harm wasn’t something I felt I needed to do anymore.
There isn’t a ‘look’ for someone who self-harms. Anyone of any age, background, race, gender, or sexuality can self-harm. It is, unfortunately, all too common in our society, so it’s important we break down the stigma around it so that it’s easier for those who self-harm to feel comfortable sharing their struggles. No one should have to suffer in silence. With love and understanding, we can create a safer place for those who self-harm to seek out help when they need it.
If you are affected by self-harm, here are some ways you get support or information:
Samaritans: 116 123 or [email protected]
Shout crisis text line: Text “SHOUT” to 85258 or “YM” if you’re under 19
Childline: 0800 1111 (under 19s)
YoungMinds parents helpline: 0808 802 5544
Mind: 0300 123 3393
Self Injury Support webchat (for women) is open Tuesday, and Thursday from 7pm to 9.30pm
CALM webchat (for men) is open from 5pm to midnight every day
For more information on self-harm and to find an experienced, qualified counsellor near you, visit counselling-directory.org.uk/
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