Self-harming? Here’s how to talk to someone about it

Two young people sit in conversation in a purple and blue room, with flowers on the windowsill

Sian Bradley is a freelance journalist and works with The Mix to support young people with their mental health. Sian talks about her experience of self-harm and how she copes with it in order to break the stigma and grow understanding and awareness about the issue. 

Trigger warning: This content is about self-harm, which may be a sensitive issue for some readers.

Talking about self-harm

We know that the cycle of lockdowns have been tough on our mental health, and more young people are self harming. If, like me, the extended isolation has triggered a relapse, it can feel disheartening. But please be kind to yourself. You are not a failure or a bad person. You haven’t ‘ruined everything’ by harming again – you are just a human in a lot of emotional pain.

I have been self-harming, on and off, for about eight years. When I first began hurting myself, I didn’t tell anybody. How could I? I felt like a freak, ashamed and alone in my behaviour. I was terrified of how people would react if they found out. It wasn’t uncommon for people at high school to joke about self-harm, so I kept quiet to avoid being labelled as another ‘attention-seeking emo.’

I couldn’t keep it from everyone. I had a long-term boyfriend and at 16 we were sexually active, so it was inevitable that he noticed. I couldn’t brush off his worries as I did with everyone else. Admitting to someone I loved that I hurt myself was hard. Despite the discomfort, I am so grateful I had someone to talk to about it.

My boyfriend began checking in on me. Looking back, his insistence that I stop, his searching for new harm, was damaging. But knowing somebody was looking out for me helped me reconsider whether I deserved to be hurting myself so much. I was lucky I was never hospitalised for my self-harm, and I managed to get it under control largely on my own. But the years of silence and denial stunted my recovery. I know it’s scary to admit this to someone, but you only have to take it one step at a time.

The first step

Before you talk to anybody, try to ensure you’re ready to share. Doubts are normal, and it’s OK to give yourself time if you aren’t ready. Here are some ways you can prepare:

  • Acknowledge that you need help. You are worthy of support and don’t deserve punishment.
  • Write down your thoughts, after an episode, or when you have urges. Just get some words out on paper; they don’t need to be Shakespeare.
  • Research self-harm so you have a better understanding of why people do it, and how not all self-harm looks like self-harm.
  • Think about who you might talk to, whether that’s a friend, parent or teacher.

Taking the plunge

Ideally, this is a conversation that is best had face to face, because it’s easier to control the space and it helps to see body language and tone of voice. However, if you aren’t self isolating with the person you want to open up to, there are still ways to open up a difficult conversation.
It can start with a simple text message. Something along the lines of: “Hey, there’s something I’d like to talk to you about. I could use some support, when you are ready”. Then it’s up to you to decide where you take it from there. Would a video call help? Or does the thought of that fill you with fear? If so, there’s no reason why you can’t spend some time typing out what’s going on.
  • It’s important to create a space where they are expecting to have a fairly serious conversation with you. You can simply say “I need to share something with you when you’re ready.”
  • Pick a time where you’re both in a calm, stable mood. This is hard to control but when you’re sober, well-rested and in a safe environment is enough.
  • Make a list of words and phrases that help organise your thoughts. Keep the list handy.
  • Be clear about what you want from them. You don’t have to tell them how you do it. It’s natural for people to want you to stop. If you want help with this, tell them. If you don’t, you can explain that pressure to stop can actually deepen and continue the cycle of overwhelming emotions – self-harm – temporary relief – shame/guilt – harm.

What comes next?

So you’ve made that brave move and opened up for the first time, what now?

  • Maintain boundaries with the person you confided in. Be honest if you don’t want them to tell anyone else.
  • Work on ways you can safeguard yourself with their help. You can use code words or text messages if that makes it easier to talk about relapse, ask them to keep your self-harm tools safe, help you with appointments… or simply be there to listen without judgement.
  • If the conversation doesn’t go well, don’t let this stop you from reaching out again. It can be upsetting to hear that someone you love self-harms, so people may respond with anger – but you don’t deserve to be scolded. Remember why you want to talk to someone about this and keep that in mind when things get tricky.

Alternative routes to support

If you don’t have anybody in your life you feel comfortable talking to, consider reaching out to a charity, therapist or mental health professionals. You are not alone.

Don’t be afraid to tap into alternative support networks; social media is filled with friendly mental health communities. Keep creating, writing and finding ways to process your emotions.

It’s important to be aware that if you decide to look for support on social media, you could come across some potentially triggering content. Also, spending too long on social media comparing yourself to others can affect your self esteem. Low self esteem can be a trigger for self harm, and harming can affect your self image
even more. You can see how this becomes a cycle.
If you notice that you feel worse after scrolling through Instagram or TikTok, try to limit your time on them. You could tell yourself that for a couple of days a week you will only use social media to talk to the groups that make you feel better.

Now, take a deep breath. You can do this. Remember you have nothing to be ashamed of. Self-harm is a coping mechanism in response to intense emotional distress.

It’s OK if you aren’t yet ready to talk. Give yourself a goal. Use apps such as Calm Harm, text The Mix and contact the NHS if you have seriously injured yourself.

Next Steps

  • selfharmUK provides information and advice about self harm. You can ask a question to their expert panel or share your story.
  • Mind offers advice and support to people with mental health problems. Their helpline runs nine to six from Monday to Friday. 0300 123 3393
  • If you're under 25 and would like free confidential telephone counselling from The Mix to help you figure things out complete this form and we'll call you to arrange your first session.
  • Our Crisis Messenger provides free, 24/7 crisis support across the UK. If you’re aged 25 or under, you can text THEMIX to 85258
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.

By Holly Turner

Updated on 16-Apr-2020

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