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The Truth about Self-Harm

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Self-harm, or self-injury, is a subject people often shy away from talking about, and when it is spoken about the perspective can often be very limited due to a lack of understanding about it. It feels like one of those taboo subjects that no one knows quite how to approach or discuss. 

Many of the students we support have turned to self-harm as a way of coping with life, and we recognise the need to raise awareness about this for parents, teachers, healthcare professionals and anyone else who may come across this and want to be effective in their approach to help.

Many people’s first thoughts about self-harm are individuals cutting themselves. Whilst cutting is one of the most common forms of self-harm, it is by no means the only way. 

Self-harm is ANY deliberate behaviour that inflicts pain or physical injury to a person’s own body and can be for a number of different reasons.  

At the core of any incident of self-harm is an individual who is experiencing emotional distress, and this is their way of coping. For some the act of self-harm may bring an immediate sense of relief to the inner turmoil they are facing, helping them to feel calm and in control for that moment in time.

For others who might be feeling numb and dissociated the experience of self-harm can help them to feel alive.

Sometimes the physical pain from self-harm is easier for an individual to deal with than the inner emotional pain.

A term we hear used a lot about self-harm is “attention seeking”. We discourage the use of this term, not just around self-harm, but for all behaviour, instead, we prefer to have the perspective that the young person may be “attention NEEDing”, which is very different. When an individual chooses to engage in acts of self-harm, this is demonstrating that they need help, they are experiencing some form of distress and they do not have any other effective coping mechanism

The way we respond to a young person who is self-harming is vital if we want to help them stay safe and find healthier ways of coping in order to move away from self-harm. 

Here are some things to consider: 

  1. Your initial reaction will have a great impact on the young person you are supporting and how much they continue to trust you and talk to you 
  1. It is important to maintain a non-judgemental, unshockable response. They are  already experiencing emotional distress and we must not add to it 
  1. Reassure them and let them know you are there for them. If supporting them as a professional, remember never promise to keep things they share with you a secret. You will need to share this information, and you can let them know that 
  1. Do not ask them to stop self-harming. It can take a long time for them to move away from this. Making them stop can lead to further problems for them. Instead, work with them to find healthier coping-mechanisms that they can begin to replace the self-harm behaviours with. 
  1. Unless you are concerned about them needing medical attention, do not ask to see their injuries, this can make them more secretive 
  1. Encourage them to engage in professional support i.e., counselling, visiting their GP 
  1. Continue to treat them as you normally would 
  1. Take care of yourself. It can be difficult supporting someone who is going through self-harm, so don’t be afraid to reach out for support for yourself 

To get in touch with a member of the Fresh Start in Education team, click here

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