Self harm. What is self harming? Part one.
Self-harming behaviours can refer to a wide range of behaviours such as drug use or drug abuse, smoking, starving, (anorexia), bingeing, vomiting after meals, (bulimia), compulsive eating, over exercising, excessive alcohol intake, unprotected sex, risky behaviours such as fast driving, staying in abusive situations or not taking care of oneself. For the purpose of this paper, self-harm refers to behaviours that people do to themselves, in a deliberate and usually hidden way.
I am a survivor of sexual and physical abuse. Although I do not self-harm now, I self-harmed to deal with the extreme emotional distress and sheer frustration I often felt. Hurting myself would shift my intense emotional pain to a physical pain, a pain I could cope with, knew how to cope with.
Self harm can include: Cutting, burning, scalding, banging or scratching ones own body, hair pulling and ingesting toxic substances or objects.
Self-harming is an expression of distress. It is an act done to oneself, by oneself, with the intention of helping oneself rather than killing oneself. Damage is done to the body as an attempt to preserve the integrity of the mind. Self harm is a way of expressing and coping with emotional distress and the intent is to make life more bearable. It is a way of communicating what cannot easily be verbalised. In essence, self-injury is the act of attempting to alter a mood state by inflicting physical harm serious enough to cause tissue damage to one's own body.
Self-harmers are often misunderstood and it is often thought that they must be suicidal, yet we often find that self-harm is about staying alive. Although there is a relationship between self-harm and suicide, and some self-harmers do go on to commit suicide because of their need to escape severe emotional distress, suicide may not have been the intention. The following definitions show that:
"Self-injury is a compulsion or impulse to inflict physical wounds on one's own body, motivated by a need to cope with unbearable psychological distress or regain a sense of emotional balance. The act is usually carried out without suicidal or decorative intent". Sutton (2005)
"While self-injury is usually done to help a person cope and get through a difficult situation (a life sustaining behaviour) suicide is performed as a way of ending life". Sutton (2005)
Self-harm is about exchanging unbearable emotional pain with bearable physical pain.
Why do young people self-harm
It is important to recognise that self-harm is a symptom of underlying mental or emotional distress. Research shows that young people who self-harm have often endured extremely traumatic or stressful life situations and for many there may be multiple triggers, rather than on significant change or event in their lives that leads to them self-harming.
Factors that can lead to self-harm can include, feeling isolated and unsupported, academic pressures, suicide or self-harm by someone close to the young person, family problems including divorce and separation, being bullied or rejected by peers, low self-esteem, sexual, physical or emotional abuse, neglect or deprivation, losing someone close, being pressured into self-harming by friends who do the same, being homeless, being unemployed and having no money, being pregnant or being alone with a baby, fear and shame about sexuality, racial harassment and oppression.
Sutton J. (2005) Healing the hurt within. 2nd edit.