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 are in uncertain times. But no matter what’s going on outside, your mental health shouldn’t take a back seat. The impact of lockdown and the anxiety it causes may well make self-harm harder to control. If you are self-harming, talking to someone is a crucial step towards recovery. Here are some tips for opening up.

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

You’ve done the mental preparations and you feel ready to talk to someone. How do you actually do that?

  • 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.

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.

If you are isolated with people you aren’t close to during Coronavirus isolation, The Mix has a message, phone and online helpline, and discussion boards dedicated to self-harm. You can anonymously ask for help, support or just for someone to listen.

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.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

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Updated on 16-Apr-2020

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