Myths about self harm
There are many commonly held misconceptions and prejudices about self harming behaviour, even among professionals. When managing self harm, it can help to examine any preconceived ideas or worries you might have. Some common myths are detailed here.
Myth 1: Young people who self harm are ‘attention seeking’.
Self harm is often a deeply private behaviour, and young people may go to great lengths to hide it. Some young people may be feeling deep shame, ambivalence or distress. If a young person approaches you and talks about self harm, it may have taken them a considerable amount of courage to do so, and they are putting a great deal of trust in you. This is still the case if they approach you in anger or seem to self harm to bring about a desired outcome, e.g. resolve a relationship breakdown.
Some young people do reveal self harm as a means of seeking support, because they may find it difficult to express what they are feeling verbally. This is not ‘attention-seeking’ behaviour so much as a communication of a need for help. The young person may well need attention, but the right attention, in the right way, which in turn may tend to decrease subsequent motivation to self harm. Your response is so important in setting the tone for the future – this is all about early intervention.
Myth 2: All people who self harm are trying to end their lives
Some self harm behaviours may be related to suicidal thoughts and plans. However, for many people, self harm is a coping mechanism. Rather than trying to end their lives, young people may be using self harm to manage their distress and carry on.
There is a relationship between self harm and suicide but while self harm in young people is common suicide is rare. You may well have heard that suicide is the ‘biggest killer’ of young people. This is because young people rarely die of other causes unlike older age groups.
It’s most helpful to try and understand the reasons and circumstances why a young person is self harming, while also accepting that these motivations and factors may change. This will help you decide the appropriate action.
Myth 3: Self harm is something that happens in certain groups, subcultures, genders or ethnicities.
Although self harm is more likely to occur in some groups of young people, it is not exclusive to any of them. Self harm can and does occur in all ages, abilities, sexes, genders, cultures, and ethnicities
Myth 4: Self harm means cutting.
Many people do use cutting as a method of self harm, and this is probably the most visible form. Unexplained cuts, burns or bruises may be signs of self harm in a young person. However, there are other methods.
Myth 5: People who self harm will ‘just grow out of it’
The majority of young people who self harm stop as they grow but some people use self harm as a coping mechanism later in their lives too. Some may stop for periods of time and start again later. Some people find self harm to be habit-forming and find it difficult to avoid. Whatever the case, telling someone who is self harming that they just need to ‘stop it’ is never helpful, may destroy your chance to engage with them and may avoid them seeking help from another trusted person. It’s really important to know that you can have a huge impact – getting appropriate help early may change the trajectories of young people’s lives.