Self Harm: Hurting Yourself to Help Yourself

The issue of self-harm is gaining a higher profile, in the UK at least, but it still remains to some extent a hidden and misunderstood problem, as evidenced by the stereotype of a teenage girl cutting her arms in a dark bedroom.

The issue of self harm is gaining a higher profile, in the UK at least, but it still remains to some extent a hidden and misunderstood problem.

The stereotype is of a lonely teenage girl cutting her arms in a dark bedroom. Statistics, however, show that in the mid-thirties age group, men are more likely than women to turn up at hospitals suffering from the effects of self harm. That’s according to the website www.harmless.org.uk, which provides a forum, email support and information on self-harm.

Other misleading notions about self harm are that the cutting, burning, bruising etc. represent failed suicide attempts, or manipulative cries for help or attention, or that self harming is an incomprehensible mental illness.

In fact people who self harm are usually suffering from intense emotional distress, and self harming is a way of gaining a precious moment of relief, or of controlling and managing their emotions. They use self harming as a way of coping, a survival strategy.

It may be hard to imagine the level of internal distress that makes cutting yourself seem like a pleasant option, but if it is, this is due to our lack of empathy and not the fact that people who have self harmed are in some way beyond the pale. People who self harm often suffer additionally from shame and isolation.

The good news is that counselling can be instrumental in breaking down the shame and isolation through a supportive relationship, uncovering the causes of the overwhelming emotions and working with people who self harm to find other strategies for coping.

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