Hello, friends. I hope you’re doing well and enjoying your week. Today’s going to be a little heavy and I apologize but I think this information is important. Self-harm is much more common than most people think but it’s not often discussed so it can become terrifying. Also, people who don’t self-harm have a really hard time understanding the urge to hurt yourself. Because of this, it can leave friends, family, and the people engaging in self-harm confused and feeling alone.
Self-harm or non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI- that’s the clinical term) is when someone injures themselves (can be hitting themselves, cutting themselves, scratching or rubbing skin excessively to cause damage, piercing the skin, or burning themselves) to help cope with very intense emotions.
What to do for a loved one
When you see patterns of little lines on your loved one’s arm or find a razor blade in their personal items (cutting is the most common form of self-injury), it is so tempting to freak out. But it’s important to think about what’s going to be most helpful. Try not to scream or shame the person. A healthy brain might think “what in the world would you do that for? What’s wrong with you!?” but that’s not going to help your loved one.
Let’s talk real quick about how dangerous self-harm is because there are two main reasons people with a loved one who self-harms “freak out”:
1) they’re afraid it means their loved one is suicidal
2) that there is something REALLY wrong (think serial killer) with their loved one.
Again, if you’re healthy, this seems totally wrong and so unnatural. Self-harm is called NSSI in clinical articles because the intent is NOT suicide. The person does not want to kill themselves; they want to release the emotions that feel too powerful to sit with or deal with. It is an issue, for sure. It shouldn’t just be ignored. Self-harm works a little bit like an addiction in that it can feel hard not to do (compulsive) and we build a tolerance.
So when someone begins self-harming it only takes a little bit of damage to release powerful emotions but as time goes on, it takes more and more damage (deeper or more cuts, bigger injuries). And accidents are always possible. Someone can certainly do a dangerous amount of damage without meaning to. However, it’s not as rare or dangerous as most people think. Take thoughtful action rather than reacting out of fear.
How you handle this information is going to depend on your relationship with them. If you’re a parent, you can remove the razor blade and have a calm conversation about why you’re worried about this behavior and what steps you’re going to help them take to find other ways to cope (seeking therapy is the best one). If you’re a friend, you can bring it up to them but please don’t assume you can change their behavior or “heal/cure/fix” them and be the reason they no longer want to self-harm. Most often, you need to bring someone else in (an adult or professional) and that can feel you’re betraying their trust and confidence but you’re being a responsible friend.
This is an important topic for me. In high school, I was a cutter. It started because a boy I had a crush on did it and I was going through a lot of the same pain as he was. So for me, it was part wanting to relate to him and part looking for anything that would help alleviate pain. It was never about wanting to die but rather it felt like so much frustration and pain and anger was built up inside me that they needed to come out. The only reason I share this is that I want you to know that recovery is 100% possible and having this problem doesn’t make you “broken” or “unfixable”. There is hope and it does get better. I know that can sound cliche but it’s true.
It’s really hard to find a balance between supporting your loved one and normalizing their behavior. While it isn’t an uncommon problem, it is important that we address is rather than hoping it’ll work itself out. Get a counselor to help you work through how to approach your loved or how to continue to help them in their recovery if it’s difficult for you.
Kayla Valley is a Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW) who works at the Highland location of Perspectives Therapy Services. She became a therapist to help people struggle with the depression and anxiety that she understands intimately. She loves being a Michigander and is an avid sewist who loves spending time with her cats and sugar gliders.
Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland, Fenton and New Hudson, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.