How to Help Someone Who Self-Harms

February 14, 2024

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Self-harm is not a cry for attention, but a cry for help. Fortunately, help with self-harming is available. Whether you need to know how to stop self-harming yourself or how to help a friend who self-harms, this guide is full of actionable tips. You can also discover how to connect with evidence-based mental health treatment near you.

How Can I Help Someone Who Is Self-Harming?

Self-harm, clinically described as nonsuicidal self-injury, is not classified as a mental health disorder. Rather, it is an unhealthy method of dealing with emotional pain. Self-harm means intentionally causing physical or emotional injury to yourself without the intention of suicide.

Common forms of self-harm include behaviors like:

  • Cutting
  • Burning
  • Biting
  • Hitting

These actions can vary from mild to extreme and might occur regularly or just occasionally. Self-harm is most often observed in teens and young adults, with lifetime rates of 15% to 20% in this demographic. Self-harm does not include substance abuse, eating disorders, or body piercing.

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Need Help Getting Mental Health Treatment?

Helping someone who is engaging in self-harm requires sensitivity, understanding, and a proactive approach. Here are some ways in which you can offer support:

  • Open a line of communication: Start by gently expressing your concerns. Be compassionate and non-judgmental. Let the person know that you’ve noticed their pain and that you’re there to listen. Encourage them to talk about their feelings, but don’t force the conversation. Be patient and let them open up in their own time.
  • Offer emotional support: Be there for them consistently. Show empathy and understanding. Your support can make a significant difference. Validate their feelings. Acknowledge that their emotions are real and that it’s okay to feel overwhelmed.
  • Educate yourself about self-harm: Learn more about self-harm to understand what the person is going through. This knowledge can help you provide more effective support. Understand that self-harm is a coping mechanism, and the person may not be ready or able to stop immediately.
  • Encourage professional help: Gently suggest seeking help from a mental health professional. Offer to help them find a therapist or accompany them to an appointment. Reassure them that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
  • Help them find alternatives: Encourage them to explore healthier coping strategies, such as exercise, writing, or other creative outlets. Discuss and practice stress-reduction techniques together, like deep breathing, meditation, or yoga.
  • Create a safety plan: Help them develop a safety plan for when the urge to self-harm arises. This might include calling a friend, engaging in a distracting activity, or going to a safe place.
  • Respect their privacy: Respect their need for privacy and confidentiality. Avoid discussing their situation with others without their consent. Understand that recovery is a personal journey and occurs at an individual pace.
  • Be patient and stay committed: Recognize that change doesn’t happen overnight. Be patient and remain committed to supporting the person through their journey. Celebrate small victories and progress, no matter how minor they may seem.

Keep in mind that your role is to support, not to cure. The decision to stop self-harming and the journey to recovery are ultimately up to the individual. Your understanding, patience, and support can be crucial in their path to healing, though.

Why Do People Self-Harm?

Understanding why people engage in self-harm is key to providing empathetic and effective support. Often, a person turns to self-harm as a means of coping with intense emotional pain or distress. It can serve as a way for them to express feelings that are difficult to articulate, manage overwhelming emotions, or escape a sense of emotional numbness.

In some cases, self-harm is used as a method to regain a sense of control over feelings or life circumstances, especially in situations where individuals might feel powerless or disconnected. For others, it acts as a form of self-punishment, driven by feelings of guilt, shame, or low self-esteem. While not always the case, self-harm can also be a way to communicate distress or a call for help, especially when someone is unable to express their feelings through other means.

Traumatic experiences, such as abuse or severe neglect, can also increase the likelihood of self-harm. Individuals might use it as a response to unresolved trauma, externalizing internal pain that they are unable to deal with in other ways. Additionally, self-harm can provide relief from emotional numbness or dissociation, allowing individuals to feel something tangible when they are otherwise disconnected from their emotions.

Peer influence can play a role, too. Exposure to peers who self-harm, whether in real life or through media, might influence some individuals, particularly adolescents, to adopt similar behaviors. This can be a way of exploring personal identity or feeling a sense of belonging to a peer group that engages in these behaviors.

Beyond this, self-harm can be associated with various mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, BPD (borderline personality disorder), and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Each person’s reasons for self-harming are unique, and understanding these reasons can help those looking to offer support and assistance effectively.

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What to Say to Someone Who Self-Harms?

When talking to someone who self-harms, approach the conversation with care, empathy, and understanding. Choosing the right words can provide comfort and encourage the person to seek help.

Start by expressing your concern in a non-judgmental and compassionate manner. You might say something like, “I’ve noticed you’re going through a tough time, and I’m really worried about you.” This shows that you care without making assumptions about their behavior.

Listen actively and empathetically. Encourage them to share their feelings, if they’re comfortable doing so, but don’t pressure them to talk. You could say, “I’m here to listen if you want to talk about what you’re going through.” This reinforces that you’re a supportive and safe person to confide in.

Acknowledge the pain and difficulty the person is experiencing with words like, “It sounds like you’re really hurting – that must be so hard.” Avoid trivializing their feelings or suggesting quick fixes.

Offer support and encourage them to seek professional help. You could suggest, “Have you thought about talking to someone who can help, like a therapist or counselor?” Offer to assist them in finding help or to accompany them to an appointment.

Reassure them of your ongoing support by saying, “I’m here for you, and I care about you. You’re not alone in this.” This can provide a sense of security and belonging.

Avoid confrontation, criticism, or expressing frustration, even if you’re feeling anxious or upset. This can lead to them feeling misunderstood and could push them further away.

Remember, the way you respond can have a significant impact on their willingness to open up and seek help. Your patience, understanding, and support can be vital in their journey towards healing and recovery.

Treatment for Self-Harm

Treating self-harm involves addressing both the physical and psychological aspects of the behavior. The goal is to treat any underlying mental health issues and to develop healthier coping strategies.

Initially, if there are physical injuries from self-harm, these should be treated clinically. Depending on the severity, this may involve first aid, treatment by a healthcare professional, or in more serious cases, hospitalization.

Psychological treatment typically involves therapy with a mental health professional. The most effective forms of psychotherapy for treating self-harm are CBT and DBT:

  • CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy): CBT is often effective, as it helps people understand the thoughts and feelings that drive their self-harming behaviors and learn new ways to cope with distress.
  • DBT (dialectical behavior therapy): DBT, a sub-type of CBT, is particularly helpful for those who self-harm. It focuses on teaching skills to manage emotions, improve relationships, and reduce impulsive behaviors.

In some cases, medications may be prescribed, especially if the self-harm is linked to a mental health condition like depression or anxiety. Mood stabilizers or antidepressants can help manage underlying symptoms that contribute to self-harming behaviors.

Family therapy can also be beneficial, especially for adolescents. It helps family members understand the problem and learn how to support their loved one.

Support groups, either in-person or online, can provide a sense of community and understanding. Sharing experiences with others who have faced similar challenges can be both comforting and encouraging.

Treatment for self-harm is not one-size-fits-all. It may involve a combination of therapies and should be tailored to individual needs. The key is to address the root causes of the behavior and to develop healthier coping mechanisms, with ongoing support and understanding from both professionals and loved ones – read on to see how you can achieve this in Southern California.


How can you stop self harming?

To stop self-harming, seek help from a mental health professional who can provide personalized therapy and coping strategies. Developing healthy coping mechanisms like mindfulness, exercise, or engaging in creative activities can help manage stress and emotions. Additionally, having a supportive network of friends and family is highly beneficial for emotional support and encouragement.

How to help someone who wants to hurt themselves effectively?

If someone wants to hurt themselves, the best thing you can do is listen empathetically and offer non-judgmental support. Encourage them to seek help from a mental health professional and offer assistance in finding resources or setting up appointments. Educate yourself about help with self-harming and stay engaged in their well-being, being ready to intervene if necessary.

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Get Treatment for a Loved One Self-Harming at Connections

Are you looking for effective depression treatment in Orange County? If so, we can help you at Connections Mental Health.

While self-harm can be extremely damaging and disruptive, we can help you address these behaviors, and we can also help you probe the underpinning causes. When you engage with inpatient treatment at our beachside facility in Southern California, you will enjoy personalized care and the peer support of a handful of others battling similar experiences.

When you are committed to tackling self-harm, call 844-759-0999 for immediate assistance.

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