Self –harm is on the rise yet still remains unaddressed and unspoken. The terms self-harm self-mutilation and self-injury all refer to acts of purposely harming oneself without the intention of dying.
Cutting is the most common way people hurt themselves but it is certainly not limited to just that. Other methods include burning the skin, scratching that breaks the skin, hitting to the point of bruising or breaking bones, biting or falling. These acts of self-harm are sometimes done on impulse but occasionally they are planned. Self-harm is not usually a suicidal behavior nor is it an indicator of an impending plan.
Statistics vary as most self-harm is not actually reported, but they range from 15% to 39% of the population committing an act of self-harm at one point during their lives. However, despite the increasing numbers, the stigma remains as do many misconceptions. The following seem to be the most prevalent:
- Self-harm is not limited to teenagers. The typical age of onset is in the teenage years to early adulthood but not restricted to those parameters. There have been incidents of self-injury starting as young as 8 years old and others who do not begin until their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s or 50’s; however it seems to be particularly prominent in the high school and college years
- Self-Injury is not for attention. If people self-harmed for attention, why do they spend so much time trying to cover it up. It can be particularly challenging for people to understand the purpose that self-mutilation serves. In most cases it is a means to express emotions unable to be put into words, but may also provide a sense of control in the person’s life or environment. It is often used as a method of self-soothing or decreasing anxiety; as a way of releasing pain and tension; as a means of relieving guilt or expressing self-hatred or feelings of failure. Because of the physiological release of endorphins when the body feels pain, self-harm is sometimes used as a mental distraction, or simply to feel alive. It is a complex disorder and often a symptom of another mental health disorder.
- Cutting is not confined to the arms. Many people assume that a person who self-injures does so primarily on the arms, (hence the long sleeve shirt at inappropriate times) however other common areas include the upper thighs and the stomach. Generally speaking, the area used would not be visible to anyone else, as most people who hurt themselves go to great lengths to hide it. Most people who self-harm will find any excuse not to be seen dressing or changing, be it at home or school.
- Only girls/women self-injure. This could not be further from the truth. Although numbers seem to be higher in females, quite a few teenage boys and men turn to self-harm for the same reasons as women. Self-injury is a coping behavior, something some people rely on when under stress or in difficult situations and is not sex or gender based.
- Self-Harm is manipulative behavior. When a person is desperate, fearful, unsupported, invalidated and has all their control taken away, they might do anything to try to cope, to try to gain just a tiny amount of control over their life. When a person in authority (partner, best friend, parent, guardian, health care worker) seems to be controlling their life, or taking away what little happiness they have, that person may feel like they are worthless, and have nothing to bargain with. Some people, in despair, say “you made me self-injure”. These words really mean ‘I can’t cope with what you’re doing, I don’t know how to react, I feel so powerless, I wish you understood how much pain I’m in, I only have self-injury, that’s all I have’.
The good news is self-harm is treatable. There are a multitude of coping mechanisms that can be used to replace self-abuse, the key being to find the ones that would be most appropriate for that individual, and keep trying different methods until that occurs. Listed below are some of the more frequently used techniques:
If you are feeling angry, frustrated or self-hating:
- Hit a pillow, or use the pillow to hit the wall.
- Find something to rip or tear apart…old papers, a book.
- Go for a walk, jog or do jumping jacks or push-ups
- Crank up some music and dance
- Throw ice cubes against something hard enough to shatter them
If you are feeling sad or depressed:
- Take a hot shower or bath
- Call or visit a friend
- Listen to music
- Write, draw or paint your feelings and tear the paper up
- Cuddle or pet an animal
If you are craving the physical sensation or wanting to see blood
- Draw on yourself with red marker in the area you would harm
- Hold ice cubes in your hand , or the bend of your arm until they melt
- Run your hands under very COLD water
- The Lines Project or the Butterfly Project
- Chew on something with a strong taste (Peppermint, toothpaste, and orange peel.
- Snap a rubber band on your wrist
- Take a COLD bath or shower
- Rub a scented cream or ointment under your nose (Vicks or a muscle rub)
Those are just some examples of methods of distraction. Lastly I would suggest making a Self-Harm Box which basically consists of things that are important to you, such as photos, a journal, a red marker and elastic band; a reminder list of your favorite songs, movies, books or people; basically anything that makes you smile. Keep the box near the space where you would cut, or close to you and when you get that first urge, open the box.
The more this topic is discussed, written about and heard, the numbers will lower, the stigma will lessen and people will be less afraid to reach out, and more inclined to use their voices.
Note: If you are feeling an urge my DM is open to anyone on Twitter. @onelastkick71