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Self Harm

Self harm is often used as a coping mechanism, and it can be overwhelming to find out that someone you care about is hurting themselves intentionally.

If someone is self harming and they go too far, they will need emergency medical attention. Call 111 or get them to an emergency medical centre.

Self harm is when someone intentionally hurts or injures themselves. People usually think of self harm as cutting but it also includes biting, burning, hitting, stabbing, not allowing old wounds to heal or any other deliberate act to injure themselves.

Self harm is often used as a coping strategy - a way to deal with overwhelming or intense emotions, or to cope with difficult experiences or distressing life events. Often the injury will draw blood or leave a scar, but it is not usually the person’s intent to kill themselves. Rather, it's a way of making themself feel better by expressing the emotions they believe they can’t otherwise cope with.

It can be quite overwhelming to find out someone you care about is hurting themselves, but there is a path to recovery.

Keeping an eye out

Here are some things you might notice if a young person is self harming. They might: 

  • Become depressed or withdrawn
  • Have significant changes in their mood and easily get angry or upset
  • Stop participating in things they used to enjoy
  • Want to be alone and isolate themselves
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts or cover themselves up
  • Have unexplained injuries, scars, bruises or marks
  • Be being bullied
  • Talk negatively about themselves

Healthy conversations

If you've noticed scars, marks, or behaviour that concerns you, but you are not sure whether the person is self harming, check in with them and see how they are doing. Show them you care, and that you are concerned.

  • Pick a time that suits you both and a place that is private
  • Be patient - ask if they would like to talk about what’s going on with them. Remember they might not want to open up straight away, but letting them know you are there for them is a big help
  • It’s important to let them know you’re not angry, and they aren’t in trouble - you are just concerned and want to help
  • It’s unhelpful to say things like “just stop” or to dismiss self harm as “just attention seeking” or “being dramatic”. If they're struggling so much the only way they can feel better is by hurting themselves, then they must be in a lot of emotional pain
  • Take them seriously. Let them know you understand whatever they are going through must be hard for them, and you can see they are hurting
  • Let them know it’s okay to be feeling whatever they are feeling and see if you can help them name some of those emotions
  • Remind them of the services that are available for them to access

Taking action

If you're supporting a young person who is self-harming:

  • Check in with them often. Ask how they're doing and if they're coping
  • Help them book an appointment with a doctor or a counsellor. If they feel comfortable with it, go with them to their appointment
  • If they would like you to, help them to make a plan of different ways they could cope when they feel like hurting themselves
  • Sometimes the person who is self harming might feel lonely or isolated. Spend time with them and get out and do things you can enjoy together
  • Next time you feel upset or angry, consider how you express that emotion. Don’t be afraid to talk about how you are feeling. Demonstrating other ways of coping can help
  • Try to understand why that person is self harming. Often there are underlying problems that are causing the person to feel unable to cope
  • Take care of yourself. The best way to support someone else is to make sure you are okay
  • Be clear about what you can and can’t do for that person. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed. If you don’t feel able to help them, let them know and then seek the help of a GP or counsellor together

Resources

Youthline

Confidential Helpline: 0800 376 633

Youthline provides free phone, text, and email counselling support. Its website has great information for youth dealing with challenging situations including information for young people who self harm.

Mental Health Foundation A-Z

An A-Z of mental health issues, including self-harm, with information on the topic, resources, helplines, and support groups.

Youth Beyond Blue – Self harm and self injury

Youth Beyond Blue is an Australian organisation. They have a page on self harm and what you can do to help. Contains contact and helpline numbers that are Australian based and will not work in New Zealand.

Family Connections

Family Connections is a 12-week course for family and whānau supporting someone who has very strong, hard-to-control emotions, or a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD), which can also involve self harm. It is coordinated by the National Education Alliance for Borderline Personality Disorder (NEA.BPD) and programmes are available in New Zealand.

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