A Beginner’s Guide to Self-Harm

by thethreepennyguignol

Well, I got you there with that clickbait title, didn’t I? This isn’t actually going to be a guide on how to self-harm, because I feel like my desperation for views hasn’t quite dipped that far yet. But I do want to talk about the stuff you may not know about self-harm, and why it doesn’t necessarily work the way you might think it does. Trigger warning for discussion of self-harm and suicide.

As I’ve written about before, I’ve dealt with self-harm as an ongoing issue for a long time now. Over that time, I’ve come to be really, really frustrated by the conversation around it. In popular culture, self-harm is often an issue-of-the-week that’s resolved with A Nice Chat, or something that’s generally confined as a recurring issue to teenage girls (usually of the pretty, saveable variety, but that’s another article). In the media, everyone’s reasons are the same, everyone’s methods are the same, everyone’s experiences of self-harm seem to be the same. But in reality, that’s far from the truth. Okay, let’s start from the top, and take apart some of the most common misconceptions I’ve come across about self-harm in the course of my verdant mental health history.

  1. “Cutting is the only thing that counts.”

When we talk about self-harm, the chances are that your mind immediately jumps to people who cut themselves, and yes, that’s the most common form of self-harm. But burning, hitting, punching, biting, and poisoning yourself are also methods people use to hurt themselves that might not be as noticeable to people around them. Just because you’re not covered with scars doesn’t mean you’re doing fine.

2. “You’re just doing it for the attention!”

Look, here’s the thing – I’ve heard this and variations of this to brush off people who injure themselves and don’t take every single measure to hide that from the people around them as proof that it’s not a real problem. And, you know what? Yeah, sometimes people do self-harm for attention. I know that I have. I’ve been convinced that the only way I can get people to notice the pain I’m in is if I put it on the outside of my body instead of keeping it on the inside, and I know plenty of other people who feel the same way. But if self-harm is the only way you can think of to get the attention you need for your problems? Yeah, that doesn’t belittle the problem. The people who self-harm for attention are still self-harming, and they still need support.

3. “Why don’t you just stop?”

I do get where this comes from, I really do. For someone who’s never been there, getting inside the head of someone who self-harms is just baffling. I know it doesn’t make sense. But for me – and according to some research done on the matter – self-harm can have addictive qualities that make it hard to stop just like that. Your body releases a small amount of endorphins to deal with the pain after you hurt yourself and, when you’re feeling low, you might not think about the shame or guilt or sadness that comes after you’ve hurt yourself – you just think about the brief rush that makes everything feel better again. Forming those connections can make self-harm hard to just up and drop, even when you’re feeling somewhat more decent, and I strongly believe it’s the addictive elements of self-harm that have kept me coming back to it.

4. “You just want to kill yourself.”

Right at the top: yes, self-harm can be an indicator of severe mental distress that can lead to suicidal ideation and even suicide attempts. But self-harm in and of itself is not necessarily just a failed attempt at ending it all. For many – including me – it’s been a coping mechanism so they can keep going. A deeply unhealthy and unhelpful one, but a coping mechanism nonetheless. Self-harm and suicidality are two separate issues, though they may present in similar ways to someone on the outside of the situation.

5. “You’re self-harming for X reason.”

I’m closing out on this one because it’s the assumption that’s driven me the most crazy (well, crazier, I guess) over the years. I’ve had so many people confidently attempt to slide in and tell me that I’m doing it because I see the blood as a release, or because I’m so numb and I just want to feel something, or because I am punishing myself for some percieved wrong, or…yeah, you get the idea. Because self-harm often has external symptoms, it’s one of the mental illnesses that people feel most entitled to comment on (which, you know, I feel it goes without saying, but unless you are my actual doctor please do not). The truth is, people self-harm for a myriad of reasons, which may change over the years they engage in this behaviour. The narrow and limited views of the problem conveyed by the media (that they are all young, that they are all female, that they are all white, depressed, doing it for attention) rarely capture the full lived experiences of the people who self-harm. I can’t tell you the reason either you or someone else self-harms, but I can tell you this: if someone has opened up to you about it, please don’t assume that you know better than they do about the complex reasoning behind such an act. Oh, and don’t compare them to Effy from Skins. I’m begging you.

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