For many, the idea of a loved one attempting suicide is inconceivable and devastatingly painful. While self-harm may not always result in such irrevocable actions, the idea of a loved one purposefully hurting themselves can be just as incomprehensible and terrifying. Unfortunately, self-harm is more common than many realize, especially among adolescents, and it is often kept a secret by those who participate in this harmful behavior. By learning to identify the signs and patterns that may indicate a secret self-harm habit, you can support a loved one through getting the help they need to recover.
Self-harm is defined as a behavior in which an individual purposefully injures himself/herself. The most common self-inflicted injuries involve cutting. However, self-harm can take on the form of burning, pulling out hair, or picking at scabs. In the most severe cases, self-harm can result in broken bones. When an individual participates in drug or alcohol use while engaging in self-harm activities, their injuries may become more severe.
Why Do People Self-Harm?
Self-harming behavior is often a silent cry for help or a coping mechanism, and an indication of a more serious underlying mental health issue, such as anxiety, borderline personality disorder, depression, an eating disorder, or posttraumatic distress disorder (PTSD). It may also be a sign that an individual is struggling to deal with an emotionally challenging situation.
Those at higher risk of self-harming behavior include individuals who have experienced a traumatic event, especially as a child or young adult, including abuse or neglect. Those who learned as a child not to show emotion, or who were never taught to deal with feelings of anger or sadness properly, may self-harm as a way to release the emotions they are incapable of dealing with otherwise. Alternatively, those who stifle emotions may self-harm in an attempt to feel any form of emotion.
Signs of Self-Harm
Those who self-harm often hide their scars from others, particularly if they are engaging in injurious behaviors as a coping mechanism. However, there are still signs to look for if you believe a loved one may be hurting himself/herself. One of the most visible signs that a loved one has self-inflicted injuries is the presence of physical scars. It can be difficult to identify the physical indications of self-harm, however, as one may keep their body covered with long sleeves and pants, even in warm weather. They may also avoid social situations where their injuries could be detected. In this way, avoidance itself may be a sign that someone is attempting to hide their behavior and its physical warning signs. Other clues that someone is at risk of self-harm may include making statements of hopelessness or expressing feelings of worthlessness and having poor impulse control.
What to Do if a Loved One is Engaging in Self-Harm
It is critical to understand that a loved one engaging in self-harm is likely dealing with an underlying mental health issue of challenging life experience. While the self-harm behavior may be an unhealthy coping mechanism, it could also be an underlying indication that the individual also experiences suicidal ideation. Start by talking to them and helping them to understand that you are not judging them, especially as feelings of guilt and shame often surround self-harm behavior. Help them to realize that you care for them and that you do not want them to hurt themselves or feel hurt anymore.
Finally, help them to seek professional assistance immediately. A counselor or psychiatrist can help your loved one work through the underlying issues that are causing their self-harm behavior and help them to create healthier ways of dealing with their emotions and coping with stressful situations.
At Horizon Health Services, we can help you or a loved one struggling with a mental health disorder. Contact our team today at 716-831-1800.