...with Charlotte Watson 1 March 2013

Self-Harm/Self-Injury Awareness Day 2013

1 March 2013 is Self-Harm/Self-Injury Awareness Day; on this day some people may wear an orange awareness ribbon/wristband to encourage awareness of self-harm.

Self-harm happens when you injure or harm yourself on purpose. People tend to use self-harm as a way of dealing with very difficult feelings that are building up inside. Self-harm in its broadest sense does in fact incorporate eating disorders as a type of harm to your health and body and patients with eating disorders are at high risk for self-mutilation (e.g. skin cutting and burning), and vice versa. Self-harm can be mild to severe, but it shouldn't be confused with a conscious attempt to commit suicide (though some may die as a result of their actions).

Some of the reasons people have given for their acts include:

  • Affect modulation (they may find it easier to deal with real physical pain than to deal with their emotional pain, ending feelings of numbness, lessening a desire to suicide, calming overwhelming/intense feelings).
  • Maintaining control and distracting the self from painful thoughts or memories.
  • Self-punishment (they may feel they deserve punishment for either having good feelings or being an 'evil' person or because they hope that self-punishment will avert worse punishment from some outside source.
  • Expression of things that can't be put into words (displaying anger, showing the depth of emotional pain, shocking others, seeking support and help).
  • Expression of feelings for which they have no label: this phenomenon, called alexithymia (literally 'no words feeling'), is common in people who self-harm.

Help and support

Talking to someone can help you feel less alone and to see your problems more clearly. If you feel that you can't talk to friends, family or your GP maybe you could speak to a helpline:

  • Beat www.b-eat.co.uk. Provides support and information relating to an eating disorder, including sufferers, carers, professionals and anyone who wants to find out more about eating disorders.
    Beat Adult Helpline (over 18s) 0845 634 1414, Monday to Friday 10.30am - 8.30pm and Saturdays 1.00pm - 4.30pm or you can email help@b-eat.co.uk
    If you are 25 or under, call the Beat Youthline on local rate number 0845 634 7650. They offer a callback service so if you want to save the cost of the call please ask. The Youthline is open Monday to Friday evenings from 4.30pm to 8.30pm and Saturdays 1.00pm - 4.30pm. The Youthline also offers a text service on 07786 20 18 20. If you would like a call back send a message 'call back' to this number. There is also a Youthline email service at fyp@b-eat.co.uk
  • Samaritans - 08457 909090 www.samaritans.org.uk. A confidential listening service for people who are suicidal or in despair.
  • Sane - 0845 767 8000 (1.00pm – 11.00pm daily), www.sane.org.uk. A national, out-of-hours helpline offering specialist emotional support and information to anyone affected by mental illness, including family, friends and carers.
  • Mind - 0845 7660 163, www.mind.org.uk/. Provides somewhere to turn to for advice and support for anyone with a mental health problem.

When you want to harm yourself:

  • Try distracting yourself by going out, sing or listen to music, or do anything (harmless) that interests you.
  • Try to relax and focus your mind on something pleasant.
  • Focus on positives. Be kind to yourself: get a massage. Write a diary or a letter, to explain what is happening to you: no-one else needs to see it.
  • Make a 'crisis plan' of what to do when you feel bad.

What can I do if I know someone who self-harms?

It's important to remember that, even though it may not be apparent to an outside observer, self-injury is serving a function for the person who does it. Figuring out what functions it serves and helping someone learn other ways to get those needs met is essential to helping people who self-harm.

  • Listen to them without being critical. This can be very hard if you're upset or angry, but try to focus on them rather than your feelings.
  • Try to understand their feelings, and then move the conversation to other things.
  • Sometimes people feel ashamed, guilty or bad and can't face talking about it. Help them to think about their self-harm not as a shameful secret, but as a problem to be sorted out.

Mind, along with Rethink Mental Illness, is a partner in Time to Change, England's most ambitious campaign to end the stigma and discrimination faced by people who experience mental health problems. Their current campaign 'It's time to talk' aims to tackle the fear and awkwardness that people feel around talking about mental health. Go to their website for information and support on how to get talking about mental health.

Charlotte Watson

Assistant Psychologist

Charlotte Watson is an Assistant Psychologist at Vincent Square Eating Disorder Service