Know about... self harm

Self harm, self injury and self mutilation are all terms used to label the deliberate and conscious damage someone purposefully causes to their own body and which is not socially sanctioned.

A wide variety of acts can be carried out by someone who self harms, including forms of deliberate self mutilation such as skin picking or cutting. It also includes the deliberate misuse of toxic substances, burning of skin and hair and failure to take care of your physical requirements.

Self harm is estimated to be one of the top five causes of acute medical admissions in the UK. Despite this, not much is known about self harm and its causes. People who self harm often say it provides a release to built up emotions and the severity of injuries does not always reflect the degree of emotional distress a person may be in.

What is self harm?

Self harm is grouped into three main categories:

  • Someone may self harm either sporadically or repetitively. The way in which they damage their body is usually intended to be superficial although sometimes they may accidentally cause more damage than they intended. Even though the injuries are usually superficial this type of self harm still needs to be taken seriously. The level of injury does not necessarily reflect the emotional stress someone is in. This leaflet covers this form of self harm.
  • Sometimes self harm forms a regular and repetitive pattern, such as continual head banging. This type of self harm is most commonly seen in someone who has a psychotic mental illness or learning disability.
  • The most uncommon form of self harm involves someone infrequently damaging a large area of their body and includes the deliberate amputation of limbs and injury to large areas of tissue.

Self harm tends to develop in adolescence and adulthood, and may occur as the result of a series of events and emotions. When someone self harms they may feel that they are 'going mad' but this is not true. For many people, it can be a way of coping with intense emotional pain and as such acts as a way of gaining relief from upsetting emotions. However, the actual act of self harm can also cause distress, as you may feel disgust or guilt at the actual act. Although self harm is distressing, research shows that with support, for most people it does end.

Why does someone self harm?

People self harm for a variety of reasons. However, it is commonly thought to provide a release for pent-up emotions which someone does not feel able to express in another way. It is common for someone who self harms to say that they feel 'free' or 'alive' immediately after or during the event.

It is a common misconception that self harm is directly linked to suicide. For some, it can act as a way of avoiding suicide. Self harming allows someone to cope with emotions and to 'feel', the aim of suicide is usually to stop 'feeling'. However, anyone who is in extreme emotional distress may consider suicide, including someone who self harms.

Everybody who self injures has their own reasons for doing so. It may be because they are angry, scared or repulsed at themselves or for some other reason that is difficult to define. If you self harm it can be useful to keep an emotional diary. This way you can look at what might be causing you to self harm. It may be any one of the following, or a reason that is not on the list:

  • low self esteem, even self hatred
  • depression
  • fear of rejection
  • guilt
  • past experience of emotional, physical or sexual abuse

It is important for anyone who cares about or knows someone who is self harming to be aware that they are not attention seeking. Self harm is misconceived by many to be an attention seeking exercise. However, this is not the case. Self harm is an indication of emotional distress and as such needs to be taken seriously. It can be tempting not to acknowledge what is happening in the hope that the act will cease. However, someone is more likely to recover if they seek support.

What can I do if I am self harming?

The feelings involved in self harming are often strong, however, you do have choices and you can stop. You may want to try some of the following suggestions. If you do self harm try not to feel guilty or put off from trying again. It can be hard to stop suddenly if this has been your usual way of dealing with emotions.

  • If you do feel the need to self harm then try to do it as safely as possible, using sterile equipment and seeking medical help when you need it. It can be helpful to have appropriate self-administered dressings and cream ready.
  • Keep a diary of when you feel the need to self harm and the emotions that have lead you to that point. You may begin to recognise the build up and look towards developing evasive action.
  • Self harm involves negative feelings. Try to think positively about yourself and remember if you do self harm try not to feel bad about it.
  • Try other ways of expressing your feelings - you may want to consider some of the following: draw on yourself with make-up or marker pen, hit and punch cushions, place an ice cube on the skin or tell yourself that you can self harm but that you will wait 10 minutes, then keep extending the time. If you try these and still find that you are self harming, do not blame yourself, it is probably that you have not found the right method for you.
  • The internet has several web pages which offer information and support. It may be worth looking at some of these pages, they provide information and sometimes contact with other people who self injure.

Where can I get support?

You may need to seek medical assistance to deal with any injuries. Depending on the severity, you should contact A&E or your GP.

The Student Health Adviser is available through an appointment system. There is also a drop-in session each day. You can make an appointment at the Student Centre reception or by phoning 01642 342277.

The University Counselling Service offers confidential, non-judgemental counselling. Talking to someone who is not involved in your life can help you recognise patterns of behaviour and find your strengths. Counselling sessions usually last 50 minutes and the number of sessions will be decided by you and your counsellor. You can arrange an appointment by phoning 01642 342277 or by calling into the reception of the Student Centre.

As well as providing medical assistance your GP can be a good starting point to seek help with addressing the problems that may be causing you to self harm. They may be able to refer you to local support services and counselling or therapy support.

Sometimes it is easier to talk to someone over the phone. The following organisations offer support:

  • MIND (National Association for Mental Health) has an information line on 08457 660163 (local rate). Middlesbrough Mind is 01642 248809.
  • The Samaritans - 08457 909090.
  • The UK national helpline for women in distress is open Friday and Saturday night, 9.00pm - 12.30am. T: 0117 9251119.