Self-Harm: A Hidden Truth

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Self-harm is the intentional or deliberate hurting of oneself. “Cutting” is the most widely known form of self-harm; however burning oneself, hitting (including banging your head against a wall and punching walls), intentional picking at scabs or general picking at the skin and even something simple, like pulling hair, are all forms of self-harm.

Hendrike via Wikimedia Commons

Despite common belief, self-harm and suicide are not always interlinked. It is safe to say that individuals, who self-harm, are probably more likely to commit suicide or attempt to do so because self-harm goes hand in hand with psychological disorders such as depression or borderline personality disorder. However, people who self-harm may often have no intention to commit suicide – deliberate injury is more complicated than that. Self-harm can be more of a “survival technique” than most people realize. Therefore, generalising self-harmers to be suicidal is a common but inaccurate misjudgement.

The motivation for self-harm can often be attributed to the fact, that to some people, self-harm is a coping mechanism. It is an emotional “release” for factors such as depression, anxiety, stress and low self-esteem. When we get hurt, our bodies release endorphins (endorphin secretion can also be promoted by laughter, orgasms and chocolate –creating a “feel good” sensation), which induce the self-harmer into a state of euphoria. Essentially, just like sex can be addictive (nymphomania), or as sugar can be addictive, self-harm embodies the form of an addiction which is as potent and harmful as any other addiction (if not more).

Self-harm is likely to develop as a result of having suffered a childhood trauma. Childhood trauma can lead to psychological disturbances such as borderline personality disorder, depression and bipolar disorder – all three of which are linked closely to self-harm.  When self-harm goes hand in hand with a past experience, it is often inflicted in order to escape memories or feelings related to the trauma or to “express” pain. The emotional pain is converted into momentary physical pain and then overwhelmed with the release of endorphins. Furthermore, a lot of individuals that have suffered this kind of trauma often blame themselves for being a victim. The “why me?” question that lingers on their mind – sometimes for life – plays on their self-esteem and they tend to convince themselves that they are at fault. Here, self-harm becomes a way of punishing oneself.

Statistically, self-harm is hard to measure – primarily because all self-harmers are not open or willing to talk about their problem. In fact, to most of them, it is a habit or a normality that does not need to be discussed as if it were “unusual”. Self-harm is most common in teenagers – or, better put, this is when it is mostly likely to develop as a habit. When detected early, self-harm as a habit can be treated through behavioural therapy and other such therapies, and can be put to an end by finding other alternatives for dealing with stress and imbalanced emotions.

1 in 4 people experience mental health problems and people with mental health problems are 20 times more likely than others to self-harm (National Collaborating Centre For Mental Health). Although most self-harmers are careful not to let out their “secret”, there are certain tell-tale signs that must be given attention to – especially when a person is suffering from an emotional disorder. An article by Raychelle Cassada Lohmann on Psychology Today highlights some of these “tell-tale” signs. For instance, wearing long sleeved clothes in hot weather can be a reason for suspicion. Additionally, finding sharp objects (or any object that can be used to self-harm) in strange places, or hidden away, is another giveaway. Anti-social behaviour and spending long periods locked away in a bedroom or bathroom are other causes for suspicion that Lohmann notes.

An individual who self-harms can look within themselves to understand and control their behaviour; more importantly, however, the support of family and loved ones is extremely crucial to self-harming individuals. As far as self-help is concerned, a self-harmer must focus on learning and recording their own behaviour, improving their self-esteem, trying to talk about their feelings, trying to determine ways in which to make their lives less stressful and most importantly, finding other coping mechanisms. All this is made much easier when the individual that self-harms has a solid support system and this is where a parent, the family, a friend, or even professional help plays a significant role. Essentially (highlighted in Lohmann’s article) self-harmers need to “feel loved”.

Fundamentally, self-harm is a physical pathway of expressing overwhelming emotion. It can be connected to psychological disorders, it can be a “one off” way of dealing with something, it can be triggered by emotional neglect – there is no definition to why and where it arises. Self-harm can be a short-term coping mechanism. However, it is likely to develop into a habit which one begins to depend upon. The important thing to note is that there is help for self-harmers. It is a treatable problem. Going to a trusted friend, a sibling, a parent to confide in, is a good starting point when seeking help to deal with self-harm. There are also a number of websites like “Harmless” that are worth visiting, there are semi-formal forums where one can talk to people with similar problems. Though “self-help” is a good starting point, prolonged self-harmers must try and find more formal help – like talking to their GP and exploring their options. The founder of “Harmless” stated in an interview that self-harming is not the problem. The problem is the emotions that have leads one to self-harm. Dealing with the underlying cause (which is most likely best tackled by professionals) can lead to a hopeful change in a person’s coping mechanisms.

Everybody has their own way of releasing stress and coping with the “ups and downs” of life. Some ways, however, are healthier than others. Going for a jog, writing things down – self-harm is another person’s equivalent to these mechanisms. It is essential to be aware that self-harmers need to be helped … not judged.

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About the author

Tara Sud

After living the first seventeen years of my life in India, I travelled to the England to study at the University of York. My undergraduate degree was in English Literature and Linguistics, and I am currently completing my Masters degree in Romantic and Sentimental Literature. Apart from writing, I thoroughly enjoy playing piano and consider myself a commendable Scrabble competitor. I have a keen interest in literature, psychology and biology and love to learn in general.