Self-harm 3: getting it right…

Self-harm - John Martin Bradley = iStock_000023341808XSmall

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I asked my 13 year old son what he knew about self-harm. He said, “People talk about it at school quite a bit. Mostly they just think it’s a bit weird.”

It’s clear that self-harm is very real, very common and something young people worry a lot about.

In my last post, we looked at some of the myths that surround self-harm and what the truth is about these.

Having looked at the findings of the Young Minds research and exploded some of the myths, I think we should turn to solutions.

What are the things we can all learn and do, that could help with the problem of self-harm if we encountered it?

What can we do to help?

  • Stay calm – if someone tells you that they are self-harming, it’s a massive vote of confidence. It means they trust you. It probably took them a long time to pluck up the courage and feel ready to “come out” about it. Inside, you might be freaking out. Outwardly, it’s important to stay calm.
  • Keep it confidential – because they have invested this trust in you, it’s really important that you don’t abuse it. You need to keep what they’ve told you confidential. They need to know that their trust in you is justified, that you won’t “betray them.” That is, of course, unless you genuinely fear for their safety. Listen a lot, before you make this judgment though. Most people who self-harm know what they’re doing and won’t be in mortal danger through it.
  • Don’t rush anything – it may take you a while to get your head around what they’ve told you. Take your time with this. Don’t be afraid to let them know that you need some time to assimilate it all. Ask them some questions, though be careful that they are to inform you, not to make a point. Don’t bring up the subject again unless you are both in a private place and ready for it – it may help to agree this beforehand.
  • Let them set the pace – they’ve told you. It’s not your job to sort it all out. Having someone to listen can be a massive help – you can provide this. Ask questions that allow them to talk more. If they begin to close down, then back off the questions. Concentrate on just listening – let them set the agenda.
  • Focus on the “why” – remember, self-harm is a way of coping. So it makes sense to focus on what it is that’s troubling someone. The act of harming is not the main thing. If you can, focus your conversation around the feelings and worries that underlie it, rather than the act itself. 
  • Ask what you can do to help  – it may be that they don’t want you to do anything. Or that listening to them is enough. That’s fine. But it may be that they have something in mind that you can do to help. Don’t be afraid to ask. 
  • Listen, listen, listen – it’s tempting to try and “fix” the problem or try and talk them out of it – neither will work. If someone is struggling because they feel like self-harming, it may help to distract them. Do this openly -asking  “what can we do to take your mind off it?” is a good place to start. For some distraction ideas, check out the Life Signs information here.
  • Encourage them to seek help – it may be tempting to insist that they stop self-harming or to make your involvement conditional on them stopping. Don’t do this. It will only add pressure and could cut you off as a source of future support. But you can encourage them to get some professional help. Some ideas are: a teacher, a school nurse or their GP. Talking to Samaritans is another option. You could offer to accompany them, if that would help.
  • LOOK AFTER YOURSELF – being turned to for help is a great compliment. It can also be a great burden! It’s OK to tell your friend that you feel a little out of your depth. You can either take some time to let the news sink in, or you can gently offer to help them find someone else who can help. It is not your responsibility to solve this problem – though it may feel like it is. You must look after yourself first. If you don’t, you won’t be much help anyway. Again, be open with the person about this; gently.

Final thought… 

For someone to trust us with knowledge about their self-harming is a big deal. But the majority of us will be most useful as a step along the way to some kind of professional help. Make it your business to find out more about this issue. the resources below will help. But always remember: you didn’t create this problem, and you won’t be able to fix it alone. But you can help by following these simple guidelines and steering them towards others who can work with them to grow through their self-harming into better ways of coping.

Where to go for advice, help, information and support…

What do you think?

  • What lessons have you learned about self-harm?
  • Have you come across useful information or resources to help?

Please let me know what your thoughts are… Leave a comment below or click here.

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© Jonny Matthew 2013

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