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You are here:DisordersSelf-harmWhat is self-harm?

Self-harm is when an individual injures themselves or damages their own body, usually as a way of managing or exercising control over internal pain or emotional trauma.

Why might someone self-harm?

The reasons a person might self-harm are personal and dependent on individual circumstances.

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(Self-harm) was like a way to prove to myself how worthless me and my body was, a way of proving to myself that I was a worthless "thing" rather than a person.

Sometimes, people can articulate why they self-harm easily, other people may find it difficult to articulate why they feel the need to harm or be unsure what triggered the initial act of self-harm.

People who self-harm sometimes describe doing so as a way of taking control of internal pain and regulating how and when they feel pain.

They may struggle to articulate how they are feeling in words and use self-harm as a way of externally expressing emotional pain.

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I can genuinely believe that my self-harm needs no treatment and that it is just a scratch, despite it being plainly obvious that it requires medical care. I can be genuinely confused about what is going on in my head.

This may be done simply for their own coping strategy, or some people may hope that others close to them will notice the self-harm and offer to help them.

It could be a way of dealing with a past trauma or abuse, or it could be a reaction to more current difficult circumstances such as bullying at work or school, a stressful life event such as a bereavement or relationship breakdown or as a way of coping with depression, anger or anxiety.

Society’s attitude towards self-harm

Self-harm is an issue that has an enormous stigma attached and is a taboo subject that is not talked about often enough.

There are a lot of myths and misunderstanding surrounding self-harm and the reasons people do it.

One of the most damaging myths to tackle is those who dismiss self-harm as attention-seeking behaviour, which is painted as being a self-indulgent or negative act.

In reality, people who are self-harm are more likely to be hiding their coping mechanism from others than making their acts of harm very public.

Further to this, if self-harm is enacted to seek attention, this is something that should be heard, understood and responded to as a matter of urgency.

This may be the only way in which a person can express that they are in distress and struggling to cope with their emotions. The attention that they seek could be life-saving and not everyone is able to ask for help and support verbally or using the written word. It’s important that we tackle the stigma and respond with care and understanding if someone discloses or shows their self-harm.

Another common misconception is that people who self-harm are suicidal or somehow building up to a suicidal act. Whilst it is true that someone who self-harms could also experience suicidal thoughts and feelings, it is crucial to remember that self-harm is a coping mechanism that allows a person to keep on living.

It is not a definite signal that someone wants to die or intends to kill themselves.

That said, people who self-harm can be at greater risk of death if an act of self-injury goes too far or if undereating or excessive exercises places them at risk of fatal complications.

This is why it is so crucial to respond sensitively and with great care to people who self-harm, and to avoid stigmatising their behaviour as wrong or bad.