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Understanding Self-Harm

Let’s be honest, self-harm is scary. Self-harm can be terrifying to talk about, especially when someone we care for is hurting themself. So, what is self-harm really?  By definition: self-harm is the INTENTIONAL, direct injuring of body tissue most often done WITHOUT suicidal intentions. The means it is not just cutting, any form of intentional harm. Before really talking about the hidden elephant in the room that is self-harm, we need to learn some of the reasons people self-harm.

  • Distract from personal pain
  • To feel in-control
  • To ground or reconnect themselves
  • Feeling they need to be punished
  • To relieve the pressure inside of them
  • To not die

The last one always gets me, how can someone hurt themselves in-order to “not die”? Depression is the leading factor in people who self-harm, and suicide is often a result of un-treated depression. But how does causing more harm to oneself help them NOT DIE?  To attempt to bring understanding to this part of the elephant, we can look at self -harm differently and change our ideas about what self-harm actually is: a coping skill. Self-harm works well as a coping skill, sometimes so well it becomes the only coping skill. Self-harm releases endorphins which make us feel happy and energetic, often the physical pain can “snap” someone out of the deep well of psychological pain to re-focus. Self-harm allows a person to be the abuser, the victim and the caretaker. To truly help a person who is self-harming we need to understand how self-harm helps them at every stage of the cycle: Before, during and after.

So how can we best help someone who uses self-harm? We talk about it, we make friends with that elephant and help them learn or re-learn different ways to handle what life looks like for them. By supporting and being open, we can plant the seeds of change. How would it feel if someone told you that you could NEVER use your best coping skill again? The best ways to help are to: 1) Let the person know you care and are available. 2) encourage expressions of emotions including anger. 3) Offer to help them find a therapist or support group. 4) spend time together 5) trying new coping skills or activities together like henna, singing loud, punching a pillow, writing in a journal or even writing in red pen where a person wants to cut. Check out the following resources for more support and information of self-harm: Visit for safe alternatives.


Author: Melissa Bowman, RCH Suicide Prevention & Volunteer Recruitment Coordinator

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