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How to help a person who's having a self-harming episode

Updated on April 19, 2017

What's a self-harming episode?

Before talking about ways to help, I would like to clarify what a "self-harming episode" means in my eyes. Like a person who's been addicted to cigarettes, drugs or alcohol and is now in rehab, people who self-harm also have "fits" or "cravings". Those are periods in time when the body and soul crave for the substance that they are addicted to. Like a drug addict desperately looking for the next "fix" begging people for money or some "stuff". Like an alcoholic, asking the bartender for "one last drink".

Don't leave them alone
Don't leave them alone

How to help a distressed self-harmer?

When it comes to an emergency situation when the person in front of you shows signs or openly telling you they're going to hurt themselves - the one thing you DON'T do is leave them alone.
Self-harming "emergencies" where the person is frantically looking for a way to hurt themselves are temporary, and the more you stall and delay the action from happening, the greater the odds that they would change their mind and let it go.

Let it go?

These fits have a time limit on them. The time differs from individual to individual, but a person can't keep the same level of intensive desire forever. At some point, especially with someone guiding them through it, they'll calm down and be able to rationally think things through.
Ok, so I don't leave them alone. Now what?
As mentioned above, now it's a waiting game. You could ask them questions about how they're feeling, how was their day, do they like your new jacket, playing verbal games of any sort. Do anything you can think of that might distract that persons' mind.
The longer the person in distress will keep holding on to their intensified craving the more emotionally tired they're going to be. That, in turn, would lead to physical exhaustion. If you could create a scenario that your counterpart is laying down, that could help speed up the process and lead to relaxation faster. That been said, not many people who are having this kind of tantrum would feel comfortable or willing to sit or lay down.

Keep calm

It's all about your company and attitude
It's all about your company and attitude

The obstacles standing in your way

A person who's in a traumatic scenario and is feeling stressed and vulnerable would have different reactions to you depending on the level of closeness they share with you.
Some might be crying hysterically which can make them feel uncomfortable next to you. In that case, you could suggest that you won't look directly at them so they wouldn't feel stared at or judged. The most common reaction would probably be irritation regarding your presence; most people that self-harm engages the activity while in the privacy of their own homes, rooms and anywhere else that is empty of other people. When you're harming yourself you wouldn't like having an audience (in most cases. There are exceptions to that rule), and they would probably try to shoo you away. Not in the nicest ways either. They might be mean and loud and rude and even try to leave by themselves. This can be very frustrating for a person that is only trying to help but remember that these people are now in a very vulnerable position and are feeling very exposed.
In different occasions, some might even ask for your assistance with the actual activity or ask you to do it for them. You must never say yes. Some would threaten they would do it whether you're in the room or not but that bluff can only be refuted in the moment of truth. Asking for your assistance is a way of seeking attention and closeness and basically asking for help. Not help to hurt themselves as they might present it, but help in avoiding the action or ending the situation. In that moment, the only foreseeable way to finish the episode is to do the harming. They cannot see that the option of not doing it is also in existence since they are blinded by their old and destructive habits.

What to say

How do I know I've done well? that I've helped?

Just you reading this article is doing well. Awareness to people that are self-harming is key to making them feel like they can approach society and ask for help.
Moreover, when encountering a situation as depicted in this article, even if the person does end up hurting themselves, your acknowledgment of their distress will build trust between you two and help that persons' feeling of loneliness subside for a bit.

If you have encountered a person ready to self-harm themselves and stayed and waited for the episode to die out - you would feel a less ominous atmosphere in the room, there should be a relaxation of the muscles and facial expression and even a different tone of speech. When everything is "over" you would almost feel like there' a different person in front of you. That's how you know you did well. You brought them back from a dark place - because you care.
Thank you.

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