Understanding and Beating Self-Harm
Kristen Schou and counselor Eric Patterson discuss depression and self-harm, and how to combat it.
How Counselor Eric Tackles Self-Harm
In small doses, symptoms of depression can be managed well, but if chronic, you will feel more hopeless and less in control of your current state. When people feel out of control for an extended period of time, they become desperate, which can encourage amazingly positive reactions — or profoundly negative ones.
Self-harm fits into the category of profoundly negative. Depression and self-harm commonly go together — people who experience high levels of depression are more likely to engage in this type of behavior.
Recent estimates state that as many as two million Americans currently engage in self-harm or self-injury. Self-harm is more commonly completed by adolescents and young adults, with woman outnumbering men, but it seems that overall self-injury is increasing.
What Is Self-Harm?
As illustrated already, self-harm goes by many names. Self-harm, self-injury and self-mutilation are essentially synonymous and can be used interchangeably.
They encompass a range of behaviors that someone does to intentionally and repeatedly to cause some sort of bodily harm to their person. Self-harm is generally a reaction to depressive symptoms and is a perceived way to gain control over uncontrollable situations.
Self-injury takes limitless forms. Certainly, cutting is the most common and widely known method to self-injure; others include scratching, burning, hitting your head or body against hard objects, ingesting dangerous cleaners or chemicals and intentionally avoiding medical treatment.
People will insert objects into their body and even remove their own blood with hypodermic needles. Some people will stay with a preferred way of self-harm, while others will explore and engage in an array of behaviors.
Some would argue that alcohol and drug abuse is a form of self-injury. Addicts repetitively put dangerous substances into their systems, and many do so in the name of self-medication.
As the methods are limitless, so are the degrees of injury. Some will cut, scratch or burn themselves superficially, barely breaking the skin. Others will impale themselves by sticking large knives or needles into their abdomen.
It is important to note that the degree of the injury does not matter as much as the act of self-injury itself. All self-harmful thoughts or behaviors must be taken seriously.
Why Do People Self-Harm?
Though counterintuitive, there are some positive aspects of self-harm. Consider that any behavior continued over time provides some direct or indirect benefit to you, no matter how negative it might seem on the surface.
To treat and eventually reduce self-harm, you must understand the role and function it serves. Reported positives of self-harm include: the ability to express strong feelings and emotions, relieve the built-up physical tension and pain, gain control, and feel alive.
Negatives of Self-Harm
If self-harm was purely positive, there would be no need for any further discussion on the subject. Of course, you know this is not the case.
As with any negative coping skill, the negatives of self-harm always outweigh the positives over the long-term. Reported negatives of self-harm include:
- When the short-term feelings of relief wear off. You are more likely to continue feeling unwanted feelings like shame, guilt, worthlessness and helplessness after the initial positive feelings.
- Impacted relationships. Dealing with depression and relationships often causes strain. Because self-injury is seen in a negative light usually, the measures taken to keep the behaviors secret harm the relationships you have with loved ones.
- Even seasoned self-injurers can accidentally harm themselves in more extreme or exaggerated ways. These accidents can lead to serious health concerns like infections, permanent damage, or even death.
- Self-harm is avoidance and distraction from the real problem. Without addressing the issue directly, symptoms will worsen.
- Negative coping skills must increase in frequency and intensity to continue achieving the same effect. Like with drug use, you will build up your tolerance needing more severe forms of self-injury.
If self-harm is a part of your life or you have been contemplating it, work to realize the easy answer is usually not the best choice. Instead, choose to tell on yourself by talking to a trusted friend, family member or mental health professional. Allow them to give you feedback in a nonjudgmental, loving way. The act of disclosing this information helps to reduce the secretive nature that shrouds self-injury.
After you have built or reestablished your support network, challenge yourself and your team to figure out what role self-harm serves. As mentioned above, you are gaining some benefit from the behavior.
Are you avoiding a problem? Are you distracting yourself? Are you trying to draw attention to something you do not have the words to describe? Without gaining this understanding, any attempt at treatment is like putting a bandage on a broken leg, or putting an icepack on your head while your foot is throbbing.
The next step of the intervention process is finding new, positive coping skills to utilize. Simply put, self-harm is too damaging and negative to continue.
Next page: Eric’s self-harm interventions, and Kristen’s advice on self-injury.