Category : Mental Health
Author : Dr Jolly Khan

As humans, we traverse many emotions. At times, we may feel elated, as if we’re soaring high, while at other moments, we may find ourselves in the depths of despair. Our generation, proficient in social media, frequently broadcasts their emotional states online through posts and stories. Emojis have emerged as a swift and contemporary method to express emotions. However, this replacement for words has potentially led to a deterioration in our ability to articulate our feelings and thoughts effectively. We are so engrossed in the allure of social media that we have lost touch with ourselves. Recently, it was observed that individuals, particularly adolescents, often resort to self-harm as a form of emotional release when they are unable to make sense of their internal turmoil and mental state. A study conducted among school and college students in India found a prevalence rate of 33.8% for self-injury.[1]

Self-harm or Non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) refers to intentionally inflicting harm on oneself, typically as a coping mechanism for difficult or distressing thoughts and feelings. People who engage in self-harm do so in ways such as cutting their skin, hitting, punching, fighting, poisoning, ingesting things, abusing alcohol or drugs, starving themselves or binge eating, or overexerting themselves, where the intent is to cause pain to themselves, but not to end their lives. Those who self-injure are often trying to cope with neglect, trauma, depression, and abuse and do not understand how to process these traumatic events healthily. Self-harm is not a mental illness but a behaviour that indicates a need for better coping skills. Individuals who self-harm are believed to lack healthy emotional regulation skills. This could often lead to developing and reinforcing certain maladaptive coping mechanisms. Several illnesses are associated with it, including borderline personality disorder, depression, eating disorders, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Also, Self-harm isn’t the same as attempting suicide, as the act is typically performed as a coping method. However, it is a symptom of emotional pain that should be taken seriously. If someone is self-harming, they may be at an increased risk of feeling suicidal. Signs of an individual with self-injury tendency are: increase of bruises, scratches, bitemark, burns and other injuries; talk of hopelessness, unworthiness, helplessness or distress; fresh or old scar often in pattern; always keeping sharp objects close-at-hand, covering up parts of the body they do not usually cover to hide scars.

Someone’s reason for self-harm can be very different from other people who self-harm. Some of the reasons that young people report as triggers or reasons that lead them to self-harm include- difficulties at home, arguments or problems with friends, school pressures, bullying, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, transitions and changes such as changing schools, alcohol and drug use. People who have grown up in an abusive environment generally learn not to express their needs or emotions out of fear or neglect. They take out their frustrations and anger on themselves, using pain and injury to feel a release. The urge to hurt oneself may start with overwhelming anger, frustration or pain. When a person is not sure how to deal with emotions or learned as a child to hide emotions, self-harm may feel like a release. Sometimes, injuring oneself stimulates the body’s endorphins or pain-killing hormones, thus raising the mood. Alternatively, if a person doesn’t feel many emotions, they might inflict pain on themselves to feel something “real” to replace emotional numbness.

Once a person injures themself, they may experience shame and guilt. If the shame leads to intense negative feelings, that person may hurt themself again. This could become a vicious cycle if not attended to, as it could serve as an unhealthy coping mechanism that the person engaging in it would often want to revisit as it provides them with temporary relief.

Debunking The Myths

There are lots of myths attached to self-harm. This is not surprising, as misunderstandings and myths often emerge when an issue like self-harm is not well understood. Negative stereotypes can be powerful. They need to be challenged because they stop people talking about their issues and asking for help.

  • MYTH: ‘Self-harm is attention-seeking’ :

One of the most prevalent stereotypes is that self-harm is about ‘attention-seeking’. This is not the case. Many people who self-harm don’t talk to anyone about what they are going through for a long time, and it can be tough for them to find enough courage to ask for help.

  • MYTH: ‘Only girls self-harm’ :

It is often presumed that girls are more likely to self-harm than boys, but it is unclear if this is true. Boys and girls may engage in different self-harming behaviours or have different reasons for hurting themselves, but this does not make it any less serious.

MYTH: ‘People who self-harm are always suicidal’ :

Self-harm is sometimes perceived as a suicide attempt by those who do not understand it. For many, self-harm is about coping with challenging feelings and situations. Some have described it as a way of staying alive and navigating these difficulties. However, some people who self-harm can feel suicidal and might attempt to take their own life, which is why it must always be taken seriously.

What To Do :

  • Create an Emergency kit: Place positive things in your kit, like photos of people you love, notes to yourself or from friends or family, a journal for writing, markers or art supplies for artistic expression, an inspirational poem, favourite scents, etc.
  • Use positive imagery: Visualize yourself navigating through your painful moment without resorting to self-harm.
  • Reboot your mind: Reframe your thoughts towards helpful statements, also known as Cognitive Grounding Skills, such as “Who am I mad at?” Or “What is setting me off?” Or “I am safe, and I am in control.” These can reorient you to the present moment.
  • Know your triggers: Become aware of what issues cause you distress. Try to minimise your exposure to them, enlist others to help you navigate them, and remind yourself that you can successfully overcome them.
  • Forgive yourself: As you attempt to interrupt your self-harming behaviours, understand that it may not be as easy on some days. If you’ve lapsed into self-harming, remember that change is a process. Learn to forgive and be kind to yourself as you start anew.
  • Consider consulting a therapist: Remember that having an urge to self-harm is not the same as actually self-harming. If you can distract yourself from self-injury, you are on your way to recovery. However, if the urges prevail, preventing you from reducing your self-harm behaviours, consider seeking professional help.

Final Thought

For some people, Self-harm is a coping mechanism for intense emotions, upsetting memories, or stressful circumstances and experiences. If you’re worried that a loved one or friend may be inflicting self-harm, it’s essential to approach them with care. Ask about their well-being and be ready to listen, even if the conversation is uncomfortable. This topic can be challenging to understand. One of the most supportive actions you can take is reassuring them that you’re there for them while you might not fully grasp their feelings. Don’t dismiss their emotions or make fun of their situation. Gently encourage them to seek treatment by stating that self-harm is not uncommon and that doctors and therapists can provide help if you can offer to help them find the proper treatment. However, avoid being confrontational or demanding a promise to stop, as overcoming self-harm requires more than just willpower.

Every year, on March 1st, the world observes Self-Injury Awareness Day (SIAD), also known as Self-Harm Awareness Day, to raise global awareness about this issue. On this day, and in the weeks leading up to it and after, some people choose to be more open about their self-harm, and awareness. Organisations make special efforts to raise awareness about self-harm and self-injury. The goal of those who observe SIAD is to break down the common stereotypes surrounding self-harm and to educate people about the condition.

Therefore, grab the opportunity this March 1st to contribute positively to the lives of those silently battling their inner demons. Whether you wear a ribbon, post on social media, or engage in a conversation with someone close to you who may be self-harming, do what you can to maximise the impact of Self Injury Awareness Day and be a part of the healing.

Reference

Klonsky ED, Victor SE, Saffer BY. Nonsuicidal self-injury: what we know and what we need to know. Can J Psychiatry. 2014 Nov;59(11):565-8. doi: 10.1177/070674371405901101. PMID: 25565471; PMCID: PMC4244874.

“The Truth About Self-Harm” by Mental Health Foundation, UK.

Self-Injury Awareness Day 2023: What to Know and How to Provide Support (1and1life.com)

About Author

Dr Jolly Khan is an MD Homeopathic physician and mental health counsellor based in Vadodara, Gujarat. Connect @ Email- [email protected].

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