Discovering that a friend or relative self-harms can be extremely upsetting. It can be hard to understand why a person would deliberately hurt themselves, and people often go through a range of emotions, like feeling shocked, angry, saddened, confused or guilty.
To help you to support the person who self-harms in an understanding and caring way, it will be useful to learn why people self-harm and about some helpful strategies before you offer your support. Useful resources are given below.
It is important to take self-harming seriously. A person who self-harms will describe their behaviour as a way of coping with overwhelming feelings associated with difficult or painful experiences. For some it becomes addictive, a way of feeling better and re-establishing control over their emotions. It is rarely used as ‘attention seeking’, most self-harmers try to keep it a secret and feel very ashamed.
Because self-harm is often an expression of something going on for the person internally, ask about how they are feeling, and try to explore what the issues might be. If the person does not feel comfortable talking to you, try to make sure they know you are there to listen if they want to talk, and ensure they know of other places they can go to get support.
“Look at the individual, not the harm. Look at the person beyond the scars. Scars are not important. The person that did them is important.”
It can be very difficult for a person to stop self harming, and it may take them a long time to do so. If the person says they want to stop, discussing ways to gradually reduce the harming can sometimes be helpful. Health professionals call this harm-minimisation, either reducing the severity or frequency of the self harming. The important thing here is that the person will need to find a different way of getting the emotions out.
Here are some simple things that you can do to help the self-harmer:
- Ask how they are feeling
- Do not be judgemental
- Do not make them feel guilty about the effect it is having on others
- Let the person who self-harms know that you want to listen to them and hear how they are feeling when they feel ready and able to talk.
- When they do discuss it with you be compassionate and respect what the person is telling you, even though you may not understand or find it difficult to accept what they are doing.
- Do not give ultimatums such as ‘If you don’t stop self-harming you have to move out’. This is not helpful and it won’t work.
- Understand that it is a long and hard journey to stop self-harming. Be aware that someone will only stop self-harming when they feel ready and able to do so.
If you need to talk to someone, please use our need to talk pages. Trained Befrienders are there to listen to your problems in a caring and non-judgemental way. You can speak to them anonymously and in complete confidence.
The following links provide further information on how to support someone who self-harms. If you need help or support, please click on the link marked “I need help”.