FOCUS ON: Self-Harm – Understanding Self-Harm (Part 2)

For many young people what starts off as a once-off form of stress relief, turns into a vicious cycle of self-injury that is hard to break.

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Myths about self-harm

1.  People who self-harm are either attention seeking or are part of a cult

The truth of the matter is that the majority of self-harm is done in secret over an extended period of time, and it is often very difficult for the person to talk about and admit to why they do it. Self-harmers seldom ever seek medical help or support.

Another common misconception regarding self-harm revolves around it being a group activity or part of the “goth” sub-culture. There is however no formal or reliable evidence to support either of these assertions.

2. Self-harm leads to suicide

Perhaps what frightens family and friends most about self-harming is the incorrect belief that it will lead to suicide. In fact the very opposite is true in that when young people self-harm they are not trying to kill themselves, but instead are trying to cope with their overwhelming emotions and circumstances. For many self-harm is a means of staying alive.

It is however important to take self-harming seriously and to seek help – it has been found that in the long term, those who self-harm are at higher risk of attempting suicide.

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Warning signs

It can be difficult to detect whether or not someone is self-harming; clothing can hide physical wounds and a smile, and a dismissive “I’m fine” can mask a world of inner pain. There are however clues you can look out for if you are worried about someone:

  • repetitive, unexplained scars and / or wounds – these can be from cuts, burns, scratching or bruises and are usually found on the wrists, arms, thighs or chest.
  • sharp objects or things used for cutting – these can include: razor blades, the blade from a pencil sharpener, knives, needles, safety pins, shards of glass, mettle bottle caps, bobby pins etc.
  • lighters, matches, candles – used for burning and scalding
  • frequent blood stains on clothing, bedding or towels
  • Covering up i.e. wearing long sleeved tops and pants, regardless of how hot it is, refusal to partake in activities that will require them to wear shorts, a swimming costume etc.
  • frequent “accidents” or clumsiness – this is often used as an excuse for injuries
  • Wanting to be alone for extended periods of time – locking themselves in their bedroom or the bathroom
  • Irritability, secretive behaviour, withdrawn, looking “washed out”, tired and having no energy

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How does self-harming start and is it addictive?

For some it starts off by accident, they accidently injure themselves and thereafter start deliberately harming themselves in order to experience the same relief the initial injury gave them.

For many it begins as a “once-off” thing; they harm themselves once believing that they won’t do it again. But the relief the physical pain provided them is short lived and the problems they are trying to cope with still exist and the emotional distress and pain soon returns resulting in them harming themselves again, and so the cycle continues.

Self-harming is habit-forming. When the body is injured, hurt or under extreme stress (take running a marathon for example) a chemical or endorphins called endogenous opioids are released providing a form of natural pain relief that can be experienced as being pleasurable; however it can also increase a person’s pain threshold, thus resulting in them being able to tolerate increased amounts of pain. It is important to understand that self-harming is  not just about “chasing” the physical pleasure and / or relief from self-inflicting physical pain; more often it is about coping or finding a way to distract themselves from what they are feeling or experiencing emotionally, it is this physical diversion from the emotional pain that becomes habit-forming.

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There is a final part to the cycle: the guilt, shame and regret many self-harmers experience about what they do. It is because of these “by-product” emotions that most do not want to talk about what they do and become increasingly secretive and withdrawn.

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References:

Richardson, C. (2012). The Truth About Self-Harm: For Young People and Their Friends and Families [Booklet]. United Kingdom: Mental Health Foundation.

Science Nordic. (2012). Self-harm Is Not Only For Troubled Teens. Retrieved from: http://sciencenordic.com/self-harm-not-only-troubled-teens [Accessed on: 11 May 2015].

Segal, J. & Smith, M. (2015). Cutting and Self-Harm: Self-Injury Help, Support, and Treatment. Retrieved from: http://www.helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/cutting-and-self-harm.htm [Accessed on: 11 May 2015].

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