More people are reporting frequent thoughts of suicide and self-harm than ever before. Especially with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on mental health. So, what should you know?
Imagine this scenario: You have been concerned for several months about your teenage daughter. She has been more withdrawn than usual lately. Feeling suspicious, you eavesdrop on a telephone conversation and you overhear that she has been cutting herself.
This is, of course, a nightmare for any parent. Your initial reaction might be anger, confusion or feeling betrayed. However, taking time to understand and calmly approach this topic with her will likely lead to a better outcome.
Self-harm, or self-injury, is a topic in mental health that people often struggle to talk about. This boils down to common misconceptions, which can lead to invalid assumptions about those who show this behavior. March is Self-Injury Awareness Month, which makes this the perfect time to improve awareness. Whether you need to get help for yourself or a loved one, learning more is a great first step.
Unhealthy coping mechanisms
When people are faced with intense mental distress, the result can be hard to predict. In some cases, emotional suffering can lead to self-harm. One common example of this is cutting. It is important to note that self-harming is distinct from attempting suicide, or even feeling suicidal. In fact, it is often used as a coping mechanism to redirect emotional pain into physical pain. While it is certainly cause for concern, people who self-harm are simply seeking relief for their emotional pain.
Coping mechanisms are the techniques and tools that people turn to for emotional relief. This includes both healthy and unhealthy behaviors. An example of a healthy coping skill might be going outside for a 10-minute walk when you are feeling sad. On the other hand, smoking cigarettes or having a drink in response to stress is an unhealthy coping method. Self-harm, such as cutting, can be considered a maladaptive, or unhealthy, way of coping with emotional pain.
While it’s notably different from suicidal ideation, there is a risk of developing suicidal ideation if the underlying issues are not addressed.
Why do people turn to self-harm?
Self-harm is most common among teenagers and young adults. Experiencing traumatic events or feelings of abandonment can increase the risk, as can other sources of emotional pain, like depression. In my experience working with teenagers who practice self-harm, most of them know that it is not healthy. Further, most of them have come to therapy to try to learn better ways to cope.
Additionally, many expressed some degree of hesitation or discomfort in confronting the behavior. They typically identified fear of judgment as an underlying reason for this discomfort. Acknowledging that they are practicing this behavior can be uncomfortable at first, but it is necessary for individuals to start processing the underlying emotional pain that led them towards self-harm in the first place. For many, this can bring relief of both the cause and the urges to engage in this behavior.
How can I help?
Individuals who practice self-harm may feel guilty, ashamed, or misunderstood. As a result, individuals will usually try to hide the behavior from loved ones. The best way to help them is to avoid berating or judging them. Instead, affirm your support, and share some resources to encourage them to learn healthier ways to manage emotional pain.
Unfortunately, there can be serious consequences resulting from self-harm and the underlying mental distress, including suicidal ideation or behavior. Therapy can help individuals unpack underlying issues while also learning healthier coping skills. If you think therapy might be helpful for you or your child, reach out. Our providers are willing and able to help.