How to Help Someone with Self-Harm Issues

The idea of purposely harming yourself without the intention of suicide can be hard to understand. We will go over some things you can do to help a friend or family member who is self-harming.

If you know someone who is engaging in self-harming behaviors but you are not sure if they are attempting to commit suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at any time of day or night at 1-800-273-8255. You don’t have to figure this out on your own. Reach out for assistance.

What Is Self-Harm?

Self-harm is a blanket term for any self-injurious behavior that someone engages in as a coping mechanism in order to relieve emotional or psychological stress.The damage can be visible and external, or it could be internal, such as ingesting chemicals or medications that are harmful.

Some examples of self-harming behaviors are:

  • Cutting, scratching, or picking at the skin
  • Burning oneself with items or cigarettes
  • Head banging or punching things
  • Picking at wounds so they don’t heal
  • Drinking harmful chemicals
  • Pulling out hair on the head or body
  • Overdosing on medications
  • Not taking medications to treat existing conditions

It’s challenging to understand, but a person who is self-harming is intentionally causing damage to themselves in order to relieve suffering.

Reasons for Self-Harming

Rates of self-harm (also called non-suicidal self-injurious behavior) are highest among teens and college-age young adults. Most commonly reported reasons for engaging in self-harming behaviors are:

  • Feeling “empty” inside
  • Coping with being over- or under-stimulated
  • Feeling unable to express emotions
  • Feeling alone or lonely
  • Feeling misunderstood or neglected
  • Feeling afraid of adult responsibilities
  • Attempting to relieve painful emotions and memories¹

Because of certain connections in the brain, the act of creating physical pain can relieve mental anguish.² The relief created by self-harm is very temporary but, because of even momentary relief, a cycle of repeated self harm easily develops in the absence of proper care for the condition. Self-harming also creates a sense of control and can even make a person feel more grounded when they are overwhelmed.¹

Signs That Someone May Be Self-Harming

If you suspect that someone you care about is intentionally injuring themselves, there are some things that you can look for. Most people who self-injure will try to cover up any signs. You may have noticed that they may wear long sleeves or pants in hot weather or refuse to ever uncover their heads.

If your loved one has frequent unexplained injuries or sickness, as well as low self-esteem, and has trouble handling their feelings, they may be self-harming. People who self-harm may also have vague or hard to believe reasons for their injuries such as “I fell down” or “I’m not sure how that happened.”¹

How to Talk About It and Offer Support

The most important thing to remember is, as a friend or family member, you can help by just being calm, present, and open to listening. Remember this person is suffering already, and they are likely feeling some guilt and shame about self-harming as well. They will likely have mixed emotions, but being seen and acknowledged by you will go a long way.³

Some things to keep in mind when talking to someone who is self-harming are:

  • It’s most important to just acknowledge their feelings. You don’t need to solve the problems or make the feelings go away. Statements such as “I can see why you would feel that way” or “That must be really hard” can go a long way toward helping someone feel heard.
  • Be careful not to be judgmental. For someone who has never self-harmed, it can be super hard to understand what’s going on. Try to avoid saying things like “Can’t you see it’s just making things worse?” or “I thought you were smarter than this.”
  • Express that you are concerned because you care. Acknowledging this person’s emotional distress and showing that you’d like to help can go a very long way. Just knowing they have you on their side really helps.
  • Know that it’s a process of healing. Self-harming is not something that is going to get better overnight. Chances are this person tried to stop but was unable to for a lot of reasons. Express that you will be there for them throughout the process.
  • Ask them if they would consider counseling. Self-harming behaviors are the result of complicated feelings and thoughts and respond well to the help of a mental health professional who can help them develop healthy coping strategies.

Have a list of resources handy and suggest that the person look them over. If it seems appropriate, you could offer to sit by them while they make the calls. Helping someone with self-harm issues is a delicate process that may challenge your ability to stay present in the face of painful emotions. Get help for yourself as well if needed.

Balance Treatment Center Can Help

Here at Balance Treatment Center, we believe that our clients are far more than just their diagnosis and their behaviors. If you or someone you love is struggling with self-harm, we offer a variety of programs and support to help reduce the obstacles in the way of healthy coping and growth. Call us toll-free at (855) 414-8100 to find out how we can help or visit us online.