Talking about self-harm 

An expert explains why young people may self-harm, and describes some of the different forms it can take. Caroline, director of Harmless, used to self-harm as a teenager. She gives advice on how to get the right support.

Find out more about self-harm

Transcript of Talking about self-harm

Self harm is a physical way...

..of trying to deal with very strong emotional responses.

And those emotional responses might arise from a variety of experiences.

(young woman) I didn't really feel like I fitted in.

I felt like a misfit.

I felt like I was never good enough.

I was a bit of a perfectionist, so I was doing really well at school...

..but I didn't feel OK in myself.

And to try and eloquently describe what I was going through is really hard,

because I'm not sure I had the language for that when I was 13 years old,

so I just know I was distressed on a daily basis.

And so it started and it quickly became a daily problem for me.

Most people will describe a variety of things that they will do to self harm.

The most common ones that people think about

are cutting with, say, a razor blade or a knife.

Other ones are things like burning, hitting yourself,

perhaps banging your head against a wall,

scratching, pinching,

and also possibly taking overdoses,

not necessarily that are life threatening,

but just taking small amounts of perhaps paracetamol or other medication.

Self harm was both the release for some of the emotions that I was feeling,

but it also became a very punitive way of punishing myself

for how I felt about myself.

I simply didn't like myself. I didn't like who I was.

I didn't like the way I looked. I didn't accept anything about myself,

and so harming myself was a way of punishing myself

as well as releasing the tension that I felt.

One of the most common things that people think about self harm

is that people might have been abused during their childhood,

either physically or sexually.

There are also more common circumstances

which might lead people to self harm.

So for example, often people might be brought up in environments

where there's some emotional neglect.

So say, for example, their parents might have their own emotional difficulties,

so the child may be put in a position of ignoring their own feelings

in order to take care of a parent's feelings.

(Caroline) I'd describe my self harm as crying without the tears,

or anger without the screaming.

It was all of those things to me

when I didn't have the skills to externalise those feelings.

But self harm gave me that.

It was kind of my pathway to express myself

or to get out some of that feeling that was inside.

One of the most important messages

is that there is hope for people who self harm.

It is a treatable problem.

Obviously you have to consider the circumstances

in which the self harm behaviour has arisen.

There's a number of therapies that can be helpful in treating that

and a number of accessible community-based resources

that can be a first point of contact.

Mental health services didn't know how to help me.

I was dangerous to myself and I was pretty much written off by services

as somebody who would probably commit suicide.

And so that was really hard for me to hear

and it just embedded the hopelessness that I already had.

And it was only when I met people that believed in me,

believed in the girl I could be and not the person in front of them

who was totally broken,

that I managed to start to turn things around.

What I would suggest to somebody who is self harming is to try and seek help.

There's a variety of places where you might seek help.

If you have a trusted friend or perhaps a sibling or a parent

that you could confide in, that might be a good starting point.

Another good starting point is, there are a number of websites,

for example, Harmless, where you can find support in a variety of ways.

For example, they have a chatroom

where you can talk to other people

with similar problems and similar experiences.

Perhaps think about trying to look for more formal help,

perhaps through your GP or, if you're a teenager,

often your local child and adolescent mental health services

will have a specific service to help you.

Most people that come to us say, "I self harm. I have a problem."

We say, "That's not the problem."

"The problem is the emotions that led you to that place."

And if you start working with the person

and start thinking about the emotions that are behind the act of harm,

then self harm isn't the problem any more.

You take the focus and the emphasis away from the harm

and give people a chance to relate to themselves

and develop their own emotional language about what's going on,

and that's a really beneficial process.


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