mental illness

Why do people self-harm and how should I talk with someone who is deliberately injuring themselves?

Web_25Self-injury is a maladaptive coping mechanism that some people use:

  • To escape from unbearable anguish
  • To change the behaviour of others
  • To escape from a situation
  • To show desperation to others
  • To’ get back at’ other people or make them feel guilty
  • To gain relief of tension
  • To seek help
  • To die

Self-injury can take many different forms which may include:

  • Cutting, scratching, or pinching skin, enough to cause bleeding or a mark which remains on the skin
  • Banging or punching objects to the point of bruising or bleeding
  • Ripping and tearing  skin
  • Carving words or patterns into skin
  • Interfering with the healing of wounds
  • Burning skin with cigarettes, matches or hot water
  • Compulsively pulling out large amounts of hair
  • Deliberately overdosing on medications when this is NOT a suicide attempt

Adapted from Whitlock et al (2006). Self- injurious behaviours in a college population. Paediatrics, 117:1939-1948.

If you are worried that someone you know may be deliberately self-harming, don’t ignore it. Let the person know that you have noticed their injuries, remain calm without passing judgements.

Self-harming is a coping mechanism, so the focus of your conversation needs to be more on relieving the distress, rather than stopping the self-harming behaviour. Self-harming is not an illness in itself but can often be a symptom of either a mental illness or serious psychological distress which needs treatment. Encourage the person to get professional help or emergency medical help if there is a high risk of permanent harm or death.

Adapted from Mental Health First Aid Australia. Non suicidal self-injury: first aid guidelines. Melbourne: Mental Health First Aid Australia 2008.

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