“I am currently dealing with self-harm. It is true I don’t want to kill myself. I cut to relieve my pain . . . I feel like I have no other way to cope but to cut and relieve all this tension.” Kerry
“When you are carrying so much internal pain and trauma it is so hard to get your head around it. No-one sees it, no-one would know. If you are bleeding, bruised or cut open, at least you can see your pain, you can name it. It is visible.” Lisa.
For seven years I worked as an Art Therapist for Spectrum Ringwood, a mental health program that offered full time care and support for women with Borderline Personality Disorder. All of them self harmed, all of them made repeated attempts at suicide. Talking with the girls about this, their descriptions were all very similar. They self harmed because it was something that they could control. They could not control the storm of trauma and emotional dissociation that they lived with. They could not control the abuse and the horror. They could control their cutting, burning, bruising, poisoning.
It is a way of making unseen pain visible and it is a symptomatic of pain far deeper and harder to manage.
The first national report on this “largely hidden and misunderstood behaviour”, comes from a survey taken in 2012 of 12’000 Australians. It was published in the Medical Journal of Australia and showed that a quarter of young women and one fifth of young men have self harmed yet half of them do not seek help due to the stigma and lack of community understanding.
If you or someone you know is self harming it is crucial that you understand why people self harm. Understand the myths around this topic and know the steps to take to get help. Lisa Hunt-Wotton
National Survey of Youth Mental Health taken in 2015 found that as many as one in 10 teenagers – or about 186,000 – had engaged in some form of self-harm in their life, including a staggering quarter of teenage girls aged 16-17. About one in 13 teenagers (aged 12 to 17) also contemplated suicide – the equivalent of 128,000 youth – with one in 20 reportedly making a plan to take their own life and one in 40 attempting it.
This definition is taken from Headspace, which is the national youth mental health foundation, which is dedicated to improving the wellbeing of young Australians. It has fantastic resources and is a good place to go to for help.
“People who engage in self-harm deliberately hurt their bodies. The term ‘self-harm’ refers to a range of behaviours, not a mental disorder or illness”.
The most common methods of self-harm among young people are cutting and deliberately overdosing on medication (self-poisoning). Other methods include burning the body, pinching or scratching oneself, hitting or banging body parts, hanging, and interfering with wound healing.
In many cases self-harm is not intended to be fatal, but should still be taken seriously. While it might seem counter-intuitive, in many cases, people use self-harm as a coping mechanism to continue to live rather than end their life.
For many young people, the function of self-harm is a way to alleviate intense emotional pain or distress, or overwhelming negative feelings, thoughts, or memories. Other reasons include self-punishment, to end experiences of dissociation or numbness, or as a way to show others how bad they feel.”
Professor Philip Hazell is Conjoint Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry with the Sydney Medical School. He is in addition Director of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. Professor Hazell says that most injuries are inflicted in secret and are often covered up with clothing so the hospital figures only tell part of the story.
“They represent the tip of the iceberg. Only about one-in-10 people who self-harm come to clinical attention,” he said.
Professor Hazell says that “For most people it seems to be a way of relieving immediate distress,” he said.
“So people who engage in self-harm say that for a period after they self-harm they feel a bit better. That period can be a few minutes, sometimes it can be a few hours, sometimes a few days. That’s the typical scenario. It looks like for very young adolescents they’re more likely to do it because they feel bad about themselves”.
“The pattern seems to be that if people engage in self-harm they’ve usually stopped within about five years; about half of the people who self-harm stop within a year,” he said.
I was about 12 when I first started self-harming. At about that age I started suffering from depression quite badly and suffering from depression you convince yourself that you’re a bad person, you’re just not right. Bec, 25, Sydney
Self-harm is often a response to feelings of extreme psychological distress or emotional pain. People self harm because it makes them feel better and it is a way of controlling feelings that often seem out of control. Many people who have suffered abuse or truama are often disconnected or disociated from the pain of what has happened to them. Self harming helps them to feel something, anything.
Self-harm can also be a way of coping with problems. It may help you express feelings you can’t put into words, distract you from your life, or release emotional pain. Afterwards, you probably feel better—at least for a little while. But then the painful feelings return, and you feel the urge to hurt yourself again. If you want to stop but don’t know how, remember this: you deserve to feel better, and you can get there without hurting yourself.
Self Harm may provide short-term relief from these feelings. It may be an attempt to express or even control them briefly. It does not resolve them, however, and can become a compulsive and dangerous activity.
Because cutting and other means of self-harm tend to be taboo subjects, the people around you—and possibly even you—may harbor serious misunderstandings about your motivations and state of mind. Don’t let these myths get in the way of getting help or helping someone you care about.
Myth: People who cut and self-injure are trying to get attention.
Fact: The painful truth is that people who self-harm generally harm themselves in secret. They aren’t trying to manipulate others or draw attention to themselves. In fact, shame and fear can make it very difficult to come forward and ask for help.
Myth: People who self-injure are crazy and/or dangerous.
Fact: It is true that many people who self-harm suffer from anxiety, depression, or a previous trauma—just like millions of others in the general population, but that doesn’t make them crazy or dangerous. Self-injury is how they cope. Sticking a label like “crazy” or “dangerous” on a person isn’t accurate or helpful.
Myth: People who self-injure want to die.
Fact: People who self-injure usually do not want to die. When they self-harm, they are not trying to kill themselves—they are trying to cope with their problems and pain. In fact, self-injury may be a way of helping themselves go on living. However, in the long-term, people who self-injure have a much higher risk of suicide, which is why it’s so important to seek help.
Myth: If the wounds aren’t bad, it’s not that serious.
Fact: The severity of a person’s wounds has very little to do with how much he or she may be suffering. Don’t assume that because the wounds or injuries are minor, there’s nothing to worry about.
•Dramatic changes in mood
•Changes in sleeping and eating patterns
•Losing interest and pleasure in activities that were once enjoyed
•Social withdrawal – decreased participation and poor communication with friends and family
•Hiding or washing their own clothes separately
•Avoiding situations where their arms or legs are exposed (eg, swimming)
•Dramatic drop in performance and interactions at school, work, or home
•Strange excuses provided for injuries
•Unexplained injuries, such as scratches or cigarette burns
•Unexplained physical complaints such as headaches or stomach pains
•Wearing clothes that are inappropriate to weather conditions (e.g. long sleeves and pants in very hot weather)
•Hiding objects such as razor blades or lighters in unusual places (e.g. at the back of drawers)
Things that can help:
“Sometimes doing some exercise can really help; writing down any negative thoughts in a journal or on a piece of paper and then ripping them up; hitting a punching bag; talking to a friend; sometimes using a red pen to mark the skin instead of cutting; flicking a rubber band on your wrist; or holding ice in your hand until it starts to get really cold.”
Understanding why you cut or self-harm is a vital first step toward your recovery. If you can figure out what function your self-injury serves, you can learn other ways to get those needs met—which in turn can reduce your desire to hurt yourself.
Remember, self-harm is most often a way of dealing with emotional pain. What feelings make you want to cut or hurt yourself? Sadness? Anger? Shame? Loneliness? Guilt? Emptiness?
Once you learn to recognize the feelings that trigger your need to self-injure, you can start developing healthier alternatives.
How do I help someone who self-harms?
Talk calmly and normal about your concerns. Don’t be judgemental, scary or weird. You are trying to help not make it worse.
•Encourage the person to see a doctor or other health professional about the self-harming.
•Suggest options for getting help, rather than directing the person what to do.
•Do not hesitate to call emergency services on 000 if you think the person is at risk of serious injury.
•Remember that you cannot stop someone from self-harming and it is not your responsibility when they do. You can only do your best to encourage them to get help.
Where to call for help
•Emergency services 000
•Local hospital, Psychiatric Emergency Team
•Lifeline 13 11 14
•Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800
Information and advice on mental illness
•Contact SANE Help Centre on 1800 18 7263
Contact: Headspace 1800 650 890
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