Self-Harm and Coronavirus

9th June 2020

The Effects of Coronavirus on Our Mental Health

The effects of coronavirus on mental health have not as yet been sufficiently studied, at this point there simply has not been time for the longer effects on mental health to emerge. However, it is utterly reasonable to anticipate that this impact of the virus will have a lasting and vast consequence on national and worldwide mental health, wellbeing and sadly suicide events. The coronavirus pandemic is not just a medical phenomenon, but a social and economic one too that has invaded not just our bodies, but all areas of our society.

Person crying

The Anxiety That Coronavirus Has Brought with It

As concerns over the threat, both perceived and real, grows; stress, panic, sleep disturbances will be experienced, and a wide array of mental health issues will arise or be further influenced. Likely among these conditions are anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic attacks, severe phobias, self-harming and PTSD.

Teenage girl screaming from anxiety

Impact on Our Health Service

Our health service, already stretched to and perhaps beyond capacity, will again be tested as both young and old continue to suffer long after the virus is under control. There will likely be a rise in both dopamine and serotonin prescriptions as waiting lists for therapies grow.

Why Might Coronavirus Cause Children and Young People to Self-Harm

If we briefly look at reasons why a person may self-harm, we note that reasons include:

  • Poor communication skills - further increased by isolation and social distancing
  • Low self-esteem and poor problem-solving skills - none of us know how this will end, so again our lack of knowledge here will impact this issue
  • Hopelessness
  • Neglect or abuse (physical, sexual or emotional) - child protection is much harder to manage when we are not seeing the child regularly or at all
  • Poor parental relationships and arguments - even the most stable of relationships is likely to be tested during this time
  • Abandonment - again as with bereavement but also the effects of school closures and time away from friends
  • Depression and anxiety disorders are likely to be exacerbated
  • Feelings of loneliness and isolation have been increased
  • The risk of online bullying has also been increased and there are fewer avenues of support currently
  • Lack of exercise and outside time
  • Alongside a history of depression, anxiety, repeated thoughts or voices telling a person to self-harm, disassociating, and borderline personality disorder

The above list is not exhaustive and has been included to highlight the increasing risk to our vulnerable children during the Covid-19 outbreak and particularly lockdown.

Children wearing masks to protect them from coronavirus

Self-Harm is a Coping Strategy

Self-harm essentially is a coping strategy. Once self-harm, particularly cutting, is established, it can be difficult to stop. Self-harm can have a number of functions reinforcing itself as a way of coping, for example:

  • It can help reduce feelings of overwhelming tension
  • It can act as a distraction from problems and issues
  • It can act as an outlet for anger and rage
  • It can be seen as a way of inflicting self-punishment
  • There are clear associations about control and self-management 
  • To not feel numb and possibly relieve emotional pain through physical pain
  • To elicit care from others

Child using hand sanitiser

The Role of Endorphins (and How They Can Help)

When a person inflicts pain upon themselves, the body responds by producing endorphins, a natural pain-reliever that gives temporary relief or a feeling of peace. Endorphins are also released when we exercise or feel love. The addictive nature of this feeling can make the stopping of self-harm difficult. Young people who self-harm still feel pain, but some say the physical pain is easier to stand than the emotional/mental pain that led to the self-harm initially. Replacing the route of the endorphins can help. If we are going to reduce and prevent self-harming behaviours, we have to offer other coping strategies to replace this one.

Using exercise such as yoga can produce endorphins

Supporting Children and Young People Who Self Harm

Other ways to help include:

  • Non-judgemental listening
  • Recognise and acknowledge the level of distress and avoid being dismissive
  • Empathise with the harmer - how difficult must their life and experiences seem right now
  • Take it seriously
  • Resist the temptation to ask them to stop - you may just be adding guilt for letting you down to the rest of the turmoil by doing so
  • Know the limits of your role and refer as necessary
  • Above all show care and compassion - studies have shown that these have the greatest impact on recovery

parent speaking with child about self harm

Alongside this remember that supporting anyone with mental health difficulties is hard, especially during the current crisis. Be kind to yourself too and ask for help if you need it. The help is still out there and whilst may feel distant, it is available, it may just not be immediate.  

Written by Jackie Shanks