Self-harm is when a person hurts themselves on purpose, usually in response to feeling overwhelmed with emotional pain that they are unable to express or release any other way. Incidents of self-harm and self-injury occur more than you may imagine, with up to 10 % of adolescents admitting to self-harm at some stage.
Self-harm is not just an attempted suicide or an attention-grabbing act. It may provide someone with the coping skills required to deal with difficult or stressful feelings. People who are feeling intense emotional pain, have experienced trauma or live with a mental health condition are more likely to self-harm.
You might recognise that someone is harming themselves if they have unusual injuries and if they avoid exposing their body or have drastic mood swings.
What is self-harm?
Self-harm is when individuals intentionally injure themselves. Typically this occurs as a slit, a burn, or an overdose. But there is also the potential for injury from all sorts of behaviours, regardless of how minor or dangerous the situation is. In many cases, people who self-harm keep it a secret and actively hide the injury from view.
Most people who self-harm do not have the intention of attempting suicide. However, self-harm can also cause accidental suicide or long-term health issues that may be potentially fatal. Some people who self-harm may only do so once, whereas others adopt self-harm habits as a way of coping with stress over a long period of time.
Self-harm may include behaviours such as:
- engaging in high-risk activities
- cutting, burning or hitting yourself
- binge eating or starvation
- drug or alcohol abuse
- overdosing on prescription medications
Some people are more prone to self-harm than others, particularly if they have experienced physical, sexual or emotional abuse in the past or if they have a co-existing mental illness. Some may be triggered by the death of a loved one, by a personal loss such as miscarriage, or by bullying and social pressures.
Why do people self-harm?
Some people self-harm as a way of communicating that they are struggling with life. Others use self-harm as a means of coping with uncomfortably strong thoughts and feelings or as a way to relieve feelings of shame and guilt. This sense of relief is only temporary and may lead to repeated acting out when the intensity of the feelings builds again.
Individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions are at a high risk of exhibiting self-harm, as research suggests that depression may be a precursor to self-harm. People with eating disorders are also in the high-risk category.
What are the signs that someone is self-harming?
While every case of self-harm is unique, some common signs can be interpreted as early warning signs:
- dressing inappropriately and hiding body injuries
- avoiding exposing the body, such as by swimming
- interacting less at home, school or work
- having unexplained wounds on the body
- hiding potentially dangerous objects
- admitting to strong feelings of anxiety or depression
- lack of interest in favourite hobbies
- disengaging from social interactions
- drastic mood swings
- changes in usual eating and sleeping patterns
- overdosing on medicine to the point that requires medical attention
- physical signs of self-harm on the body, such as open wounds or cuts
What are the alternatives to self-harm?
Certain techniques work as distractions from self-harm to interrupt the pattern of self-harm. Examples of distraction techniques are:
- wear a rubber band on your wrist so you can snap it against your wrist whenever you feel triggered
- using exercise to release physical and emotional stress
- deep breathing, meditation or relaxation techniques
- reaching out and talking with someone you trust
How do I get support?
If you engage in self-harm, it is important to see a medical professional, such as a counsellor, psychiatrist or doctor, who can assist you to identify what is causing your urge to self-harm, working through difficult thoughts and accessing more healthy response patterns.
As with most mental health illnesses, serious damage can be minimised by early intervention, and the best intervention is prevention. If an individual is able to talk about their feelings with someone they trust before they get to the self-harm stage, then that is the ideal outcome. But this requires the individual to have the courage to reach out and ask for help, and that is often where the process breaks down.
If someone you know is engaging in self-harm, it is important that you offer them support and show them that you care about their well-being. Encourage them to seek professional help and continue the conversation about their mental health by regularly checking in with them to see how they are going.
If you are concerned for your loved one’s welfare and want to tell a healthcare professional, it is important that you tell your loved one you are planning to share your concerns before you do so they don’t feel like you are betraying their trust or ganging up on them when they feel most vulnerable.
What help is available for me?
There are many resources available to help you get started getting support. Generally speaking, when you seek help from your GP, you may receive counselling which will help you find a solution. Cognitive Behavioural Therapies have been shown to have an important impact on the prevention of suicide and reduce stress. Other forms of counselling, such as psychodynamic counselling, may also be used to find issues that cause you distress and lead to your self-harm.
If you need support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
If you think your or another person’s safety is at risk, call triple zero (000) immediately.
If you’re self-harming, it’s important you speak to a doctor about possible causes and any treatment or therapy.
Study for a Career in Mental Health Support
If you’re considering undertaking a career as a mental health worker in Australia, or furthering your studies and skills, make the start by enrolling for the Diploma of Mental Health through TrainSmart Australia.
As there is a wide range of positions and career pathways within the mental health industry, you can talk to one of our education consultants, about which course may be the right one for you.