Why it’s important to reduce the stigma around self harm

Anna talks about why stigma is so harmful and ways she found to support a friend who was self harming

Written by Anna Connors


The stigma surrounding self harm can be incredibly toxic for anyone who is struggling or who wants to seek help. Stigma comes from a lack of understanding and misinformation, so it’s important that we all try to understand more about self harm and how we can support someone who is self harming. By reducing the stigma, we may encourage people who are self harm to seek the support they need. Self harm is a complicated issue and can be difficult to understand but with the right education, I believe we can reduce the stigma related to self harm.

What is self harm?

Self harm is when a person deliberately hurts or injures themselves. It is a serious issue in Ireland today, affecting people of all ages, genders and races.

Why do people self harm?

Everyone is different and there are many reasons why a person might engage in self harm. Some people self harm to try and cope with overwhelming emotions and feelings. Others self harm to show their emotional pain as physical pain, or use self harm as an escape from past trauma. Self harm can also be used to express suicidal feelings or as a way to gain control over your feelings. Also, some people self harm to punish themselves or to stop themselves feeling numb or disconnected. But, there is often no simple reason why a person might self harm.


What to do if you’re self harming

Though it is said a lot; you are not alone. If you can, you could try and reach out to someone you trust – a friend, parent or teacher. Or, if this is not an option to you, you could contact a helpline below such as Pieta House, Childline or Samaritans who offer a non-judgmental listening service. It can also be helpful to try and recognise the triggers that can lead you to self harm and becoming aware of the feelings or urges you may get to self harm. If you can identify these, you can try and find distractions that work for you. Learn more about different distraction techniques that might help you.


How to help someone self harming

If you find out that someone close to you is self harming, the most important thing to remember is to stay calm. You may be shocked and upset that someone you know or love has been feeling like this but getting upset or angry will only make things worse and possibly make the person feel ashamed. You should try and approach the subject delicately and don’t push the person if they are not ready to talk yet. Try and let them know that you are there for them if they want to talk or show them some of the resources below.

If the person is ready to open up, try and show them compassion and listen to what they have to say without judgment. Avoid trying to guilt the person into stopping by saying things like, “by doing this, you’re hurting me” or “try and stop for me” as saying things like this are unhelpful.

I discovered that a person close to me was self harming and it was definitely a shock but by keeping calm and listening to them, we made a lot of progress and they agreed to contact Pieta House and seek help. We even brainstormed some distraction techniques such as art journaling and we tried out simple games to act as a distraction from urges to self harm. The game we found that was most useful was a game called, “I went to the moon and I brought…” In this game, each person lists a thing they would bring with them to the moon and the other person has to remember what the other person said and add to the list and it continues like this. It might sound a little silly but once we were open minded it actually worked. Not everyone might find this distraction technique helpful but the key is trying to find something that works for you.

We also sat down and made up what I like to call a “Rescue Box” of things that made the person feel happy such as photos of loved ones, their favourite movie, a childhood teddy bear and a warm, snuggly blanket. The purpose of the “Rescue Box” was to bring together some things that made the person feel safe and could help calm them down if they got agitated or upset. The beauty of it is that you can add anything you like to the box, there’s no limits. Though it might not work for everyone, it might be a nice thing to do with someone who has reached out to you (as long as they’re willing) as it can show them that you care and want to help. Sometimes all it can take for a person to seek help with self harm is someone to listen and support them as they navigate these difficult emotions. Above all, be a kind, listening ear to anyone who reaches out to you.

Through educating ourselves about self harm, we can significantly reduce stigma surrounding it. It is important to remember that most people who self harm use it as a way of coping and it is not something that is usually easy to stop at first. With the right help, many people can find healthier ways of coping. Self harm can be seen as an addiction and those suffering from it may relapse. If this happens, it is important to be gentle with the person and let them know that they haven’t disappointed anyone or let anyone down. Tomorrow is another day and they can start their recovery again.

If you or anyone you know has been engaging in self harm, please contact the organisations below or visit your local GP.

Samaritans: 116 123

Pieta House: 1800 247 247

Childline: 1800 666 666

BodyWhys: 01 283 4963

Drugs and Alcohol Helpline: 1800 459 459

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