Image: R.Nial Bradshaw
‘When emotional stresses become unbearable, a physical pain can seem preferable’
At its simplest, self-harm is a physical response to an emotional pain. Sometimes when emotional difficulties or stresses become unbearable, a physical pain can seem preferable; it helps to blot out the what’s happening and provides another focus. Self-harm can also be a way of feeling cared for. When it’s too hard to ask for help for what’s going on emotionally, people can sometimes foster a sense of being ‘looked after’ through physical injury instead. Self-harm is a wide umbrella term that may include other issues such as eating disorders, alcoholism and drug abuse.
People will self-harm for all manner of reasons, but all will relate to a difficult emotion or underlying distress of some kind. Typically, self-harm will often be in response to feelings of anger, low self-esteem or a need to feel in control, but this list is by no means exhaustive and the only way to really know what’s going on for someone is to ask them.
There is a perception that self-harm has increased significantly in recent years. It’s very hard to know for sure how big the increase is as self-harm is incredibly hard to measure – different studies look at different things and we can really only count the people who make disclosures or ask for help. The other way of looking at the supposed increase is in terms of how society is changing – we’re making it easier for people to ask for help so as a result we may be seeing more disclosures from people who a few years ago would’ve suffered in silence. An increase in numbers isn’t always a bad thing.
'Listen first and act second'
Treatment will vary from person to person and not everyone will need hospital or statutory services. One model doesn’t fit all, so whereas someone may benefit greatly from mental health services someone else may do just as well from a friendly listening ear. Self-harm is complex, and so are the people affected, so where possible try and be led by what they feel they need. Listen first and act second.
The best thing parents can do sometimes is to take a step back. Your child needs to know they are loved and supported. They don’t need you to understand, they don’t always need you to fix anything and they especially don’t need to know how this affects you. Take a deep breath, listen, don’t panic and find some personal support outside the family home where you can express how you really feel.
Don’t let self-harm rob you of the fun times as a family; still do the enjoyable things, still foster a sense of ambition, hope and adventure in your child. However hard it feels, don’t let self-harm be the most significant part of daily life – your child is more than one behaviour and being reminded of that will help more than you will ever know.
I’ve written a booklet especially for parents that can be found here: https://www.youthscape.co.uk/store/product/a-parents-guide-to-self-harm
Alumina is a 6-week online programme for 14-18yr olds and is free of charge. More information can be found here: http://alumina.selfharm.co.uk
Freedom from Harm has a wide range of helpful resources and also offer training around the UK http://freedomfromharm.com/