Self-Harm: A Coping Strategy

Self-Injury Awareness Day

Today is Self-Injury Awareness Day. This event is acknowledged globally and is supported by LifeSIGNS in an effort to raise awareness, understanding and empathy for those who injure themselves as a coping strategy.

What is Self-Harm?

Self-harm is when a person intentionally harms or injures them self. It often occurs as a way of expressing overwhelming feelings and emotions. Self-harm is often a confusing and bewildering act. It can challenge individuals, families and society to the core. We struggle to understand why people do this, why it is exponentially rising, and how we can stem this increase if possible. Some examples of how a person may display self-harming behaviours include:

  • Cutting
  • Scratching
  • Strangulation
  • Burning
  • Some form of hair pulling
  • Biting
  • Interference with wound healing
  • Ingesting toxins

Who Is At Risk?

Self-harm can affect people of all ages, races, genders and backgrounds. The UK is thought to have one of the highest self-harm rates within Europe, with 400 in every 100,000 people having intentionally harmed themselves.[1] A report by The Children’s Society has found that an alarming 9% of 14 years old boys, and 22% of 14 year old girls in the UK engage in self-harming behaviours.[2] Some common characteristics of those who self-harm include:

  • Often feels depressed, powerless or anxious
  • Experiences low self-esteem /negative body image
  • Has difficulty expressing their emotions verbally
  • Experiences difficulty with relationships
  • Strives for perfection
  • Lacks impulse control
  • Suppresses their anger
  • Doesn’t have a repertoire of coping skills
  • May have serotonin dysfunction
  • Experienced possible trauma

Self-Harm and Children

At the heart of our concerns is trying to understand why so many children (as young as three years old[3]) are clearly struggling with childhood and as a result, inflicting injury upon themselves. Shouldn’t childhood be happy; filled with good memories; a time prior to the responsibilities of adulthood, where we can be relatively free from worry and anxiety? Understanding and supporting self-harm is paramount in promoting student wellbeing and safeguarding children and young people.

Understanding Self-Harm

To begin to tackle self-harm we need first to understand it, in all its complexities. Self-harm is primarily a strategy to manage intense feelings, possibly inflict self-punishment and/or relieve unbearable tension. It can be visible and then perhaps seen as a cry for help, or conversely, it can be hidden. The reasons for self-harm are complex, manifold and varying. They include:

  • Escaping traumatic memories
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Reducing overwhelming feelings
  • Gaining control
  • Invalidating environments
  • Giving emotional pain a physical outlet
  • Expressing something that is hard to communicate
  • Having something that can be relied upon
  • Expressing suicidal feelings without taking their own life
  • Inflicting punishment

Whatever the reasoning behind the self-harming behaviours, we need to meet this with empathy, understanding and in a non-judgemental way. What helps develop our understanding is having a basic knowledge of some of the things that happen to our brains when we self-harm.

Can Self-Harm Become Addictive?

The body naturally produces chemical compounds called endorphins. Endorphins are released into the bloodstream, from various sites around the body, to help the body deal with pain and stress. They cause an actual high, designed to mask real physical pain. It’s not just pain that can cause this, and it isn’t uncommon to hear someone talk about getting an “endorphin rush.” Sex, fear, stress, exercise, laughter and even some spicy foods can all be responsible for endorphin release.

This high is what happens when a person self-harms. Their brain is flooded with endorphins, which gives them a rush, and a sense of calmness, sometimes with clarity and relief that makes them feel like everything is going to be fine. Endorphins may also be released when someone puts their body through something extremely physically challenging- sometimes referred to as Runner’s High. This euphoria can also be extremely addictive. Therefore, exercise can be used successfully in redirecting self-harming behaviours and potentially substituting running for cutting etc. 

What Are The Warning Signs?

Every circumstance and individual may show completely different signs. Safeguarding leads in schools, colleges and other organisations should look out for:

  • Unexplained frequent cuts or burns
  • Wearing long sleeves or trousers in warm weather
  • Avoiding swimming pools or the beach
  • Wearing thick bracelets to cover wrists
  • Having sharp objects in their purse, book bag, or bedroom
  • Difficulty expressing feelings
  • Withdrawal from close relationships

What Can Schools, Colleges and Other Organisations Do?

Self-harmers can and do stop. They can find alternative coping strategies if given support.

Staff that come into contact with children, young people and adults at risk need to learn about the issue in order to understand, empathise and offer support to those who are suffering. If talking about self-harm, it is of the utmost importance that no shame or blame is attached to the conversation. Remember that self-harm is a coping strategy and the person you are speaking with will likely be dealing with some very complex and overpowering feelings, acknowledge their efforts to cope with these. Be available for the person to speak to, but also find out what resources are available locally to direct or refer them to for specialist help.

Other Useful Resources:

Written by Jackie Shanks


References

[1] https://www.priorygroup.com/blog/self-harm-time-to-bust-the-myths

[2] https://www.nhs.uk/news/mental-health/nearly-quarter-14-year-old-girls-uk-self-harming-charity-reports/

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/jan/23/children-young-three-self-harm-mental-health