Understanding self-harming behaviour Written by Brendan Mooney Psychologist
Self-harm refers to a person choosing to harm themselves, and the most recognised types of self-harm include cutting, scratching, burning or hitting. It is most common among young people, particularly adolescents.
Self-harm can be misunderstood by those who are around the person who is self-harming, hence developing greater awareness about this topic is key to supporting each other.
Self-harm is often a form of emotional relief for the person, and is not typically associated with suicide. For example, often people who cut themselves do not require stitches, as the cuts are surface layer.
Usually self-harm is also not a cry for help or wanting attention in some way. In fact many people who self-harm become very good at hiding their injuries, such as cutting in the upper thigh or arm regions so the cuts are easy to conceal when wearing clothes.
If you know a person is self-harming, it is important to discern whether they are actually wanting to commit suicide or whether they are using this behaviour as a way to seek relief from the emotional tension or pain they are experiencing.
Some people will describe their self-harming behaviour as like an addiction. It may develop as a behaviour they started with rarely, then occasionally, to every day in some cases.
Given a person is typically seeking emotional relief when they self-harm, the key is to support the person to deal with their emotional unrest. It is not supportive to ask a person to stop self-harming if they are also not supported to emotionally deal with whatever is troubling them. Otherwise if a person merely stops self-harming without addressing the underlying issue they will just replace their cutting behaviour etc. with another unhealthy behaviour.
An important point to note is that whilst there are obvious and recognised forms of self-harm such as cutting etc., have we considered that there are many other forms of self-harm? For example, as a society we would not normally consider drinking any amount of alcohol a form of self-harm, yet scientifically it is. Unneccessary ‘snacking’ or eating food to alleviate stress is also self-harming to the body.
The purpose of broadening our understanding of self-harm is not for us to feel guilty, but to consider that self-harming behaviour is actually extremely common in society - far more so than we are often willing to admit. Hence it is worth considering that if we are wanting our young people to stop cutting themselves but as older adults we abuse ourselves with things like food and alcohol, what message are we actually communicating to our younger generations about what is ok? Perhaps the only difference is that alcohol and unhealthy relationships with food are just more socially acceptable ways of abusing ourselves compared to other activities such as cutting etc.
Abuse is abuse, irrespective of how seemingly severe or mild we judge it to be.
When we learn about a young person self-harming it can be a very distressing time. Understanding the different grades of self-harm prevalent across society and how we commonly use many ways to relieve tension (e.g. food and alcohol) can support us to bring a greater understanding to the more obvious forms of self-harm such as cutting, burning, scratching and hitting. Key to supporting a young person and their self-harming behaviour is with an open and non-judgmental approach, for this fosters developing understanding which is foundational to this process.
Note: If you believe a person is self-harming in order to inflict serious bodily harm or attempt suicide, contact your local emergency services or hospital for immediate assistance.
Signs that a Young Person is Self-harming
Noticeable and deliberate cuts, burns or scratches on the body
Wearing a jumper on a very hot day to hide areas of the body where there may be evidence of self-harm
Avoidance of going swimming so as not to expose areas of the body that are marked or cut
Moodiness, withdrawal, isolation
Signs the person is not coping emotionally – people that self-harm can feel very ‘down’ and look to relieve the pressure through cutting but similarly people who are very stressed or overwhelmed can go to this behavior too
Hiding implements to cut themselves (such as in the cover of a mobile phone case)
Keys to Support a Young Person who is Self-harming
Bring understanding and a non-judgmental approach
See the young person first and foremost for who they are and not their current behaviours
Actively listen – if you ask why they are self-harming and there is no judgement in your approach you are more likely to open a dialogue around it
Support them to seek support with a qualified professional
More will be written in an upcoming series of articles on this topic. If you would like to read more be sure to subscribe to receive email updates.
BIOGRAPHY Psychologist Brendan Mooney works with adults, adolescents and children. With a genuine interest in people's well-being, Brendan brings a warmth, practicality and an equality that supports clients to truly address underlying issues and blockages that are preventing them from moving forward.