Self-harm is still a big taboo subject and because of this it is rife with misconceptions and myths. As a therapist I work with people who self-harm and these clients tell me that the main thing that helps them is when they feel really heard, understood and not judged. Here’s some of the main myths I’ve come across, as well as the facts to help develop your understanding:
Myth 1: Self-harm means cutting yourself
The term Self-harm or Self-injury can be used to describe a range of harmful behaviours. Self-harm is when you hurt yourself as a way of dealing with very difficult emotions, experiences or situations. Self-harm can be a very addictive coping mechanism, often with a temporary feeling of relief following the harm. There are many ways of self-harming with the most common being cutting and burning, but other ways of self-harming can include:
- Hitting self or walls
- Over or under eating
- Hair pulling
- Drug/alcohol abuse
Whilst self-harm can offer some short term relief from difficult feelings, it often results in more difficult feelings about the self-harm, further impacting mental health. There can also be significant risks to physical health.
Myth 2: People who self-harm are attention seekers
Self-harming can be a cry for a help but for the majority of people who self-harm it is a very personal and private coping mechanism, it should certainly not be judged as attention seeking behaviour. People who self-harm will often go to great lengths to conceal their injuries, often feeling ashamed and embarrassed.
People who self-harm talk about a number of reasons why they do it. This can be as a form of managing difficult emotions or events in their life, as a form of self-punishment for things they may feel they have done wrong, or as a release from emotional pain by instead feeling the physical pain. Whatever the reason, it is not a form of attention seeking and this attitude to self-harm could stop the person from reaching out for the help that they need.
Myth 3: Self-harming is a teenage girl thing
Self-harm can happen at any age and to either sex. The media often publicises self-harm in young people more and this fuels the misconception that it is a teenage problem. Of course it is imperative that children and young people are supported in this area, but adults self-harm too. National charity Harmless state “Findings suggest that in fact for the age range of mid 30s, men represent the majority of people attending Accident and Emergency for the treatment of self harm.”
Myth 4: People who self-harm are suicidal
People who self-harm are not trying to commit suicide, in fact, often people use self-harm as a coping mechanism to deal with very difficult emotions and it can be seen as more of an act of survival than a desire to die. However, some people who self-harm do also have suicidal feelings and in addition, some forms of self-harm can cause accidental death, so it’s really important that if you are self-harming or know someone that is, that the right support is accessed as soon as possible.
Where to go for support
There are many ways of getting support for yourself or someone you know who is self-harming. It is advisable that the first step would be to talk to your GP or a qualified therapist, they will be able to advise you and refer you to the best local services for you.
Talking therapies can really help people who self-harm, by talking to someone who can empathise and offer you a safe and confidential space to explore those difficult feelings and to develop some safer coping mechanisms.