Helpful Truths About Self-Harm
Self-harm is a term that most readers have probably heard of but only few understand. The more official term for self-harm is Non-Suicidal Self Injury (NSSI); a term used to describe a person's self-harming behaviour when the intention behind it is not to end their life. NSSI behaviours are very common (e.g., research indicates that between 12% to 24% of high school and young adult populations have self-injured) and include cutting, burning, biting, hair pulling, scratching, and self-bruising.
Currently, there are many misconceptions around NSSI. The impact of these misconceptions is that they tend to increase feelings of shame in individuals who engage in NSSI behaviours and further prevent them from disclosing their behaviour and receiving the help they need. Five common misconceptions include:
1. “Only females self-injure”- Research indicates that 30%-40% of people who self-injure are male.
2. “Self-injury is just attention-seeking”- NSSI occurs for a multitude of reasons (e.g., to help regulate, cope, control, or express overwhelming emotions and their associated physiological response) and most people go to great lengths to hide their injuries. For some individuals, NSSI is a way to get attention and in such instances, we are encouraged to consider the intention! NSSI is mostly a sign of deeper, unresolved distress and therefore, if someone is injuring themselves for attention then that person is best to receive it.
3. “People who self-injure enjoy the pain or they can’t feel it”- For most people, injuring themselves does hurt and for some, feeling the pain is the whole point. Many people who self-injure report feeling ‘numb’ and would rather feel pain than feel nothing.
4. “All people who self-injure have borderline personality disorder (BPD)”- Repetitive NSSI has been associated with a range of disorders including depression, bipolar disorder, anorexia, bulimia, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety disorders (e.g, panic disorder, social anxity disorder, generalised anxiety disorder).
5. “Someone who self-injures can stop if they really want to”- This is true for some people but for others self-injury can become an addiction. There is emerging research evidence that self-injury releases endorphins in the brain; a process which increases the possibility of becoming addicted to self-injury.
When we see self-harm wounds on people we know and love, it can provoke in us a range of emotions and responses, and understandably so! Some of our responses, however, may be rooted in misconceptions such as the ones outlined above, and as detailed, the impact of this may be more alienating than helpful for the person struggling with NSSI. Having a better understanding of individuals who self-harm, therefore, can help us continue to extend compassion towards our friends, peers, and loved ones and help them on their journey to recovery.