DragonNot the facts about self-injury

There’s so much stigma around mental health, and even emotional distress. When it comes to self-injury, many people still make unhelpful assumptions, and belittle the people who rely on self-injury at times of stress.

All the myths you see on this page were contributed by our Facebook members,Support Forum community, and Twitter followers. While these are all ‘myths’, it’s not easy to dismiss them all, as there can be some truth involved with the assumptions. Read the facts carefully for a balanced argument for each myth.

The stereotypes and judgements hold us all back; let’s unpick the myths. Click each of the myths below:

This couldn’t be more wrong; and further, it’s not correct to imagine that a ‘few’ men turn to self-injury, but that it’s ‘usually’ women. Our work, and large studies, shows that men can turn to self-injury in similar ways to women. Self-injury is a coping behaviour, something some people rely on when under stress or in difficult situations – it isn’t sex or gender based.

Young people of all ages (pre-teen to early adulthood) are more likely to turn to self-injury than older adults, but this includes boys, lads and men. A further concern is the lack of support available to adults who self-injure, and older adults who have been hurting themselves since childhood, or who begin to injure in later life.

There is less information and fewer statistics about people who self-injure in certain countries, and people within certain cultures within the UK. Evidence suggests that culture, not race, plays an important role in the way a person learns to cope with mental health concerns, emotional turbulence, stress, trauma and abuse. Repressive upbringing can influence a person to become secretive and emotionally repressed. As an example, some people within UK Asian cultures hurt themselves in specific ways in order to be certain to keep their self-injury hidden.

People who self-injure are not immature, they are coping with more than they know how to manage. People of any age can find themselves turning to self-injury after trauma, during stress, or to cope with mental or emotional distress.

Low self-esteem is a key attribute behind self-injurious behaviour, and people of all ages can worry about their self-worth.

Life experience may help a person learn new ways of coping, but getting older alone does not create ‘maturity’. A person has to learn alternative coping mechanisms, and that takes time, energy and support – which not everyone has.

Adults of all ages can turn to self-injury, and come to rely on it as their primary coping strategy. Some adults may have hurt themselves in their youth and so return to self-injury in times of distress; others may turn to self-injury for the first time in their adult years owing to life events beyond their control, and the accompanying stress.

Most people who self-injure suffer from shame and guilt over their actions. Those with the courage to seek help and support may have hidden for months or years before talking to someone they trust, like a friend or professional.

This myth may be fueled by photographs of wounds and scars online. There comes a time when a person has to accept their old scars, and move on in life; this means that photographs of them, showing scars, will exist. Everyone deserves holiday snaps and those cherished photos from a good night out!

LifeSIGNS does not condone the sharing of photographs of wounds, but we understand that some people take photos as a way of ‘checking’ themselves – as a way to prove to themselves that they are in distress. The Internet is so ingrained in people’s lives that publishing photos can seem normal, as people believe that they have the right to do whatever they want with ‘their’ blog (Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter). LifeSIGNS disagrees but understands the thinking.

Some people are seeking support, but don’t know how to talk about self-injury. Some people show a friend their scars, or text a photo to a friend, as a way of saying ‘I need help’ while verbally saying “I’m fine, this is fine, you mustn’t tell me what to do”.

Self-injury can indeed be attention seeking – the attention that anyone who is (at times) broken by life needs and deserves. Self-injury can be a form of intra-personal communication (talking to the self) to say ‘This situation is messed up, and I’m really in a bad place right now’ and it can be a form of inter-personal communication (talking to others) to say “Life is pretty messed up and I’m coping as best I can, but it’s hard”.

When a person is desperate, fearful, unsupported, invalidated and has all their control taken away, they might do anything to try to cope, to try to gain just a tiny amount of control over their life. When a person in authority (partner, best friend, parent, guardian, health care worker) seems to be controlling their life, or taking away what little happiness they have, that person may feel like they are worthless, and have nothing to bargain with.

Some people, in despair, say “you made me self-injure”. These words really mean ‘I can’t cope with what you’re doing, I don’t know how to react, I feel so powerless, I wish you understood how much pain I’m in, I only have self-injury, that’s all I have’.

Some people, in desperation and fear, say “if you don’t stop this, I’ll hurt myself”. This threat really means the same as the above; it’s about trying to ask for help when there are no words to express what’s really going on.

A few people, probably, say these phrases without thinking – when angry, upset and lost in the emotional turmoil – as a way to ‘win’ an argument or tell a parent or partner to fuck off. If parents or partners react to the threats then certainly some few people might learn that such threats can manipulate people.

LifeSIGNS suggests that ‘threats’ to self-injure should be ignored while immediately giving support and listening to the person.

LifeSIGNS suggests that no one should ever accept the ‘blame’ for someone else’s behaviour, but should also look for ways to support their love one.

We’ve spoken honestly and frankly about the ability to use self-injury as way to manipulate others, but it would be wrong and unfair to assume that self-injury is just about tricking other people. Self-injury is a serious concern, and the majority of people keep it hidden and secret – simply because they are terrified of being called manipulative or attention seeking. We need to recognise manipulation as being on the low end of the scale, and simply move past it, so we can see the person in distress.

For the majority of people, self-injury is a coping mechanism, a way to get through the emotional distress and get through the day. For those people, it is actually a way to stay alive – to get on with life and to sort themselves out enough to function and to achieve what they need to get done.

Self-injury does not lead to suicide; despair leads to suicide, and some people who despair, who suffer depression and traumatic events and feel like they want to die, also hurt themselves. Despair leads to suicide – shouldn’t we all worry about the lack of emotional support for people who feel lost and worthless?

No, self-injury is a behaviour that can indicate mental or emotional distress. It is not a diagnosis.

Not necessarily; self-injury is a coping mechanism, a behaviour that some people rely on in times of stress, emotional distress, and / or traumatic events.

Everyone has ‘mental health’ in the same way that everyone has ‘physical health’. Everyone will experience mental distress from time to time, and one in four people (it is commonly said) will experience mental ill health to a degree that impacts their lives.

So as anyone from any background can turn to self-injury, a certain proportion will also experience acute or chronic mental health concerns, and self-injury may be one of the indicators (among many others) that points to certain diagnoses.

Self-injury alone does not point to a mental disorder, it indicates acute stress and distress.

Self-injury is a behaviour. Self-injury can become something a person habitually relies on in times of distress, but ‘addiction’ is a (somewhat) understood biological concern, and reliance upon self-injury as a coping mechanism is a psychological matter.

Some people like to argue about neurotransmitters (like serotonin and dopamine) and hormones (like endorphins and cortisol that are naturally produced by the body in times of excitement and stress. Some people like to argue that a person becomes addicted to these substances by causing their release through self-injury.

LifeSIGNS welcomes a clear understanding of how self-injury helps a person feel relieved and released, but the word ‘addiction’ is just not helpful when supporting a person, or when a person wants to understand their own behaviours and move away from self-injury and begin recovery.

Doctors and nurses may have to focus on the damage done to the body, and the dangers and risks involved in hurting yourself, however, that is all about the physical side of things.

Severity of self-injury does not indicate the level of emotional distress a person is in.

Care for the body is important, and wounds always (always) need care. A surgeon has a different view of how serious a wound is to how we view it. This is normal.

So let’s focus on the drivers behind the self-injury, rather than the resulting wound.

Someone who hurts themselves is not OK, even if they leave no mark on their body.

Some people only self-injure or hurt themselves ‘every so often’, and maybe go for months or years without resorting to self-injury. If and when they injure, that indicates distress. Anyone who hurts themselves is not OK, and needs some time, space, and support.

No, self-injury is a term that includes many many behaviours with the aim to relieve emotional distress. Self-harm is a larger umbrella term that includes other behaviours.

The media and the web may focus on cutting and scratching simply because it’s shocking, visual, and one of the frequent methods used, but LifeSIGNS does not focus on cutting, because we know from our years of work that people hurt themselves any way they can, any way that they find ‘works for them’ – and sometimes people develop unique ways.

We do not focus on the method, we focus on the emotional drivers behind the behaviour.

LifeSIGNS was founded in 2002 by a guy in his bedroom who didn’t think anyone could understand.

Yes, there are lots of myths, stereotypes and assumptions about self-injury. Yes, self-injury can be so shocking to some people that they just have to say ‘don’t do it’ and gossip. This is terrible. We have to break the stigma around talking about emotional problems.

One way to break down the silence around self-injury is to focus on the emotional and situational issues / concerns / problems that drive the self-injury.

Friends and loved ones want to be a good listener, they want to be helpful. Sometimes the self-injury topic can overwhelm a conversation, but it’s only part of the discussion, the stuff behind it is the more important subject.

Beyond this, there are organisations like LifeSIGNS and professionals within the healthcare services (psychologists, psychiatrists, doctors, nurses, counsellors) who have come to an understanding, and are willing to listen and help.

LifeSIGNS is run by people with personal experience of self-injury, and we have brilliant experiences of working alongside professionals who choose to care about this difficult subject.

While many wellbeing websites and organisations touch on self-injury, it can feel a little superficial.

LifeSIGNS is dedicated to self-injury and only self-injury. We worry about eating disorders, and suicide of course, but we don’t explore these topics in-depth – we focus on self-injury and touch on depression, anxiety, self-esteem, perfectionism, body image, and happiness as part of our mission to support people who self-injure.

We offer anonymous peer support via our Support Forum, as we know how difficult it can be talk about self-injury, and it can be easier online.

Help lines are harder to find; our help lines page will quickly direct you to Childline, Careline, Samaritans or SaneLine in the UK – which all talk about self-injury.

No. People who self-injure come from all sorts of backgrounds and are involved in all sorts of situations in the same ways as anyone else. They are no more likely to hurt others than anyone else. We might go so far as to say that owing to their psychological background, people who self-injure are less likely to hurt others in any way.

For context, let’s remember that statistically, people experiencing mental ill health are more likely to suffer violent crime than others.

What? Ever? This is a story that goes around A&E (Accident and Emergency) and school yards – that some people simply don’t ever feel pain. It’s as if people want to believe that people who self-injure are somehow ‘different’.

Sometimes a person can experience dissociation, a psychological event where they don’t recognise reality, know what’s going on, or feel their body. During this sort of experience a person might not feel much pain, and might even use self-injury as a way to ‘wake up’, but this serious mental fugue is a recognised psychiatric concern and does not support the myth.

This isn’t what self-injury is about. If you enjoy getting tattoos or kickboxing, no one says ‘you enjoy pain’, even if there is something exciting about the whole experience

Self-injury is about emotional pain and distress, and releasing it through physical actions and physical pain. It’s not ‘enjoyable’ – it can feel like the only way let go of thoughts and feelings.

People in despair, those experiencing anxiety or desperation, may act awkwardly in other people’s eyes.

People with low self-esteem may seem to not care about themselves, because they literally believe they are not important.

Many people worry about being judged by others.

None of this means that they don’t care about others, or don’t care about friends and family.

Sometimes, they can care too much, and hide their distress from friends and loved ones.

Self-injury isn’t a lifestyle choice. Self-injury, as we define it, is a coping mechanism, a way of dealing with emotional distress.

Those who identify or identified with goth or emo culture and music were drawn to the ‘look’ and the people for social and self-identity reasons, not ‘because’ of self-injury.

Some people like listening to a a certain genre of music. Some people dress a certain way.

Certain music, how people dress, is not evidence of self-injury.

Cultures that are open to emotional expression may be more attractive to people who appreciate that freedom – that isn’t shocking news is it?

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