It can be hard for people to understand why someone would want to deliberately hurt or injure themselves. But we need to be aware of this growing problem and how the habit can even be addictive.
The sad truth is that if some people are not helped to stop self-harming, there is a risk that it could go too far and cause serious damage or even accidental death.
I have read that 1 in 10 young people in the UK are now self harming with 2014 figures suggesting a 70% increase in 10 to 14 year olds attending ER in hospital for self-harm related reasons over the preceding 2 years. In the USA, 1 in 5 females and 1 in 7 males engage in self injury while 90% percent of those (who do) begin during their teen or pre-adolescent years. How can we protect our young children from yet another possible harm facing them?
Researchers tell us that nearly 50% of those who engage in self injury activities have been sexually abused.
But why such an increase in modern times?
Those doing the studies are unsure as to whether the behavior is becoming more rampant, or if they're simply detecting more cases due to increased awareness. Some researchers say that while there might have been an increase in the 1990s to early 2000s, it has likely hit a plateau by now.
Scientific studies of the subject only began in the 1960s and 1970s but they mainly focused on self-injury as a precursor to suicide. As a young teenager in the 1960s, I certainly never remember anything about self harm. The closest we would come would be biting our nails when under some sort of stress.
The attraction of euphoria?
Experts tell us that most people engage in self-injury as a way to cope with their emotions, particularly negative ones. And perhaps why the habit becomes addictive is that most self-injurers report that it works – it calms them and brings a sense of relief, probably from the release of endorphins, those brain chemicals that relieve pain and can produce euphoria.
So self harming is a mechanism used to cope with internal emotions, stop bad feelings, relieve emotional numbness, self punish, obtain a sense of belonging, get attention as well as many other reasons.
The link with other disorders
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
lists self harming as a symptom of borderline personality disorder although recent research points to it also going hand and hand with other mental health disorders, including:
- Conduct and oppositional disorders
Sadly, there is a long litany of different ways to self harm
- Interfering with wound healing (picking or reopening wounds)
- Punching or hitting oneself or other objects
- Inserting objects into the skin
- Purposely bruising or breaking one's bones
- Certain forms of hair pulling
And I wonder if tattoos or body piercing could be considered as other forms of self harming?
What is the solution?
If you are tempted to start hurting yourself or you know someone in this situation, what can you do?
Young people have come up with their own tried and tested solutions and these are their top 5
- Listening to music
- Talking to friends and family
- Writing down how you feel
- Taking deep breaths
- Punching something (like a pillow)
Professional therapists will make these suggestions
Thinking about the emotion you’re feeling (when you want to self-harm) can help self harmers come up with a different way of dealing with it.
Feeling alone or isolated? Try talking to someone, writing down how you feel, walking the dog, wrapping a blanket around yourself, meeting up with a friend or doing some exercise.
Feeling angry? Try punching something like a pillow, doing some exercise, running, screwing up paper and throwing it, snapping twigs, squeezing clay, hitting a rolled up newspaper on a door frame, screaming, crying or having a cold shower.
Feeling self hate or low self esteem? Try listening to music, having a bath, burning incense, calling a friend, writing, painting or listing good things about yourself.
Feeling you can’t control things in your life? Try organizing something, cleaning or tidying, solving a puzzle, setting a target time (e.g. saying you won’t harm for 15 minutes, and then if you can last, try another 15 minutes).
Feeling numb or like a ‘zombie’? Try focusing on something like breathing, being around people who make you feel good, craft activities, make a photo collage, playing an instrument, baking or playing computer games.
Feeling the need to escape from your life or a difficult situation? Try a hot or cold shower, drawing on the body with red pen, massaging lotion into the places you would normally harm, squeezing ice cubes or biting on lemon for the “shock factor” or painting nails.
The poems written by anonymous teens online on self-harm
Here is one example.
It's a drug
Once the blade
Hits the pale flesh
For the first time
It’s a drug
Coursing through your veins
It becomes addictive
You want more
More pain to
Take away pain
Help for children from phone lines and websites
Many English speaking countries have someone at the end of a phone line with help for young people. These are listed below with the relevant country. Although the USA has nothing similar, some help can be found here.
- United Kingdom
- New Zealand
- South Africa