Self-Injury Awareness Day is observed every year across the globe in March. It’s marked to help remove the stigma and raise awareness of what self-injury is and to help encourage individuals, their families, and friends to recognise the signs and seek the right support.
Sadly, self-injury is more commonly performed by teenagers and young adults and is often very misunderstood. It is a serious behaviour that signals an individual is going through intense emotional pain yet, at the same time, has not developed strategies to cope in healthier ways. Far from being a ‘cry for attention,’ which is often a common-held belief, individuals can go to great lengths to hide their behaviour often from fear of judgement.
Not only is it often difficult to talk about for the individual concerned, but it can also be very distressing to deal with as a loved one or a parent of the young person affected. Opening up a conversation can be challenging, as can knowing where to turn to find the right information or support.
So, today, we are shedding the spotlight on this very emotive topic. With greater understanding, we are in a much stronger position to support our young people through challenging times. So, with that in mind, let’s take a closer look at what self-injury is (and what it isn’t) and the steps we can take to get our young people the help and support they need.
What is meant by the term ‘self-injury?’
Self-injury, or self-harm, encompasses a broad range of behaviours or actions that are performed in order to cause deliberate pain or damage to oneself. This might include, but is not limited to:
- drug or alcohol abuse
- overdosing on medication
- hair pulling
- forms of eating disorders
- or damaging the skin by scratching, burning, hitting, or using sharp objects.
Very often, in the lead up to an episode of self-injury, an individual will be preoccupied with thoughts of their intention to self-harm or will often have intrusive thoughts about self-harming even before they perform the behaviour itself.
Why might people self-injure?
Many people may be surprised to know that self-injury is often NOT performed with suicidal intent, but rather, is developed as a coping strategy for dealing with very intense feelings of emotional pain.
Individuals may self-injure as a means to:
- Reduce intense feelings of stress, anxiety, or despair
- Release feelings of anger
- Feel something when suffering from extremely low mood or feelings of ‘numbness’
- Help cope with past trauma or feelings of self-loathing
Performing these behaviours as a coping mechanism may seem confusing as many of the behaviours associated with self-injury are consistent with acts of suicide; however, the motivation and intent behind self-injury are very different. Often, individuals who self-injure do so as a means of feeling better, not so they can end their life.
To understand this in more detail, let’s take a look at what is happening in the brain when someone self-injures or self-harms:
- Endorphins are released in response to pain. Endorphins are hormones that interact with receptors in the brain associated with addictive behaviours, pain, and reward. They reduce the perception of pain in our nervous system and, at the same time, induce feelings of overall contentment and well-being. Endorphins act similarly to certain types of pain-relieving medication and, when an individual self-injures, this endorphin response is triggered in the brain.
- Self-injury produces a physical pain that is visible to others. Emotional trauma can be invisible to everyone except the person suffering. By creating a physical, visible pain it can distract an individual from their intense emotions and therefore help them to cope better. With the release of endorphins, it can offer immediate relief to an individual who hasn’t developed healthier coping strategies for their intense feelings.
- Self-injury can become a habit for dealing with everyday stresses. When the primitive part of our brain (the part associated with our survival instinct or ‘fight or flight’) perceives stress, it will release chemicals such as adrenaline in an attempt to help us deal with this negative event. Once the stressful situation passes, our brain and body downregulate and we feel better. For some individuals who self-harm, there can be difficulties in regulating emotion, which causes the brain to remain ‘stuck’ in a painful or high-stress state. As a result, an individual may resort to self-injury or self-harm in an attempt to bring about this downregulated state.
So, as parents or loved ones, what can we do to support a young person who we believe may be suffering and at risk of self-injury or self-harm?
- Be aware of the signs. It can often be tricky to spot the signs as many young people may keep their self-injury behaviour a secret and try to hide it from loved ones. The signs may be subtle and could include behaviours such as becoming more withdrawn from friends or family or experiencing a sudden change in behaviour or performance at school. Perhaps you have noticed changes in your child’s sleeping or eating habits or they have begun avoiding activities they once enjoyed or you have noticed they are acting more secretive. Of course, all of these behaviours could be a sign of something different but the most important thing is to be aware of when your child’s behaviour appears out of the ordinary.
- Offer your child non-judgemental support. As a parent, it can be really difficult to refrain from offering advice to our children but more often than not, this is not what our young people want from us. Instead, we can try to offer a safe space where our children feel listened to. Ask them how they are feeling. Open up and share that you are worried about them and reassure them that you are there if they need someone to turn to or help with finding the right support for them. This might be through a trusted therapist or through your local hospital or mental health team. It might seem like the unthinkable, but if they are contemplating suicide or you are worried they may be, there are some links at the bottom of the page for where you can go for further help, advice, or support.
- Don’t try to force them to stop. This may seem counter-productive and go against your natural instinct, but there are times when trying to force your child to stop this behaviour can make their feelings of distress worse. It is important to remember that an individual has developed a habit of self-injury as a means of coping and when this coping mechanism is removed without warning, it can cause negative feelings to spiral out of control. Self-injury behaviours need to be replaced with healthier, more positive coping mechanisms which often need the support of a trained therapist or counsellor so that an individual can gradually stop relying on these behaviours as a means to feeling better.
- Try to help your child notice their triggers. Observing the times when an individual is more likely to self-injure can help them to find distractions when their urges are at their highest. Distractions might include engaging in their favourite hobby, listening to uplifting music, using breathing techniques, or going for a walk or exercising (which releases endorphins in a healthy way). The mental health charity, mind, has some brilliant information on this and their link can be found at the bottom of the page if you would like to find out more.
- Know where you can go for further help and support. Above all, it is important to know where to go for help and advice or to have contacts at hand in the event of a crisis. Private support can be found through one of the Youth Fairies but there are also lots of charitable organisations that offer lots of help and advice for both individuals suffering and their parents and loved ones. The details can be found at the end of this blog. In the case of an emergency or crisis, where an individual is badly hurt or at serious risk of harm, call the emergency services on 999 or visit your nearest accident and emergency department.
If you need further help, support, and information, you may find the following websites or contacts useful:
The charity, mind, provides a wealth of information and advice on self-injury and self-harm, including how to support a child or loved one:
LifeSIGNS provide a huge support network for individuals who self-injure and self-harm and champion Self-Injury Awareness Day every year. You can also find support for parents here:
The National Self-Harm Network offers online forums and support:
Advice and support for children and young people suffering from suicidal thoughts can be found here:
0800 068 4141
Young Minds parent helpline offers support and guidance for parents:
(Monday – Friday) 0808 802 5544