Help someone who self-harms

Finding out that a loved one may be self-harming can be a deeply unsettling experience. You may feel angry, shocked, sad or even disgusted. 

However in order to fully support this person, remaining calm and approaching the situation from an empathetic perspective is important. If someone self harms it does not necessarily mean that they want to die. Often, self-harm is a way of dealing with, or expressing emotions that a person finds difficult to confront in other ways. 

Steps for supporting someone who self-harms

Understand why someone might self-harm

Many myths and stereotypes surround the topic of self-harm, so it is best to inform yourself as to what is true and what is not. 

  • It is not true that people self-harm for attention. In fact, most people feel ashamed about their behaviour, and often try to hide scars and marks.
  • It is not true that only people with a mental illness hurt themselves. Anyone can be prone to self-harm, with 24% of women and 18% of men in their early 20s having experienced it.
  • It is not true that self-harm is trivial or should be ignored. Self-harming is dangerous behaviour that should be directly and immediately addressed.

Address the issue

If you know someone engaging in self-harm, it is best to have a conversation with them. This should be done with a calm and patient attitude, in a quiet and comforting environment. 

Afterwards, encourage them to seek professional help. Do not threaten them or offer ultimatums as putting extra pressure on someone who self harms is likely to do more harm than good.

Follow up with them

Self-harm can become addictive, like a bad habit that is hard to break. Thus, it is important to keep an eye out for them after your first talk.

Try to look out for signs of self-harm, such as: red scratches/cuts on wrists, thighs or stomach; burn marks; blood stains; covering up; and secretive behaviour. If you do notice these signs, try to talk to them again and let them know you are there for them. 

Don’t blame yourself

You are not responsible for someone else’s behaviour. Although supporting your friend or family member is important and helpful for their recovery, you should always take care of your mental health first.

It is okay to draw boundaries, say no to requests, or remove yourself from a situation if you feel that you are being negatively affected. It is also not your job to act as a therapist; it is best to leave that to the professionals as they have the knowledge and training to help.