You might already have an idea about what self-harm is, or you may even have experienced it yourself. But there will be some of you who have never heard, or thought, about it is very much at all. Unfortunately, self-harm is often misunderstood, and there are several persistent myths that surround it. So, let’s bust a few myths and dispel some of the stigmas around self-harm (or non-suicidal self-injury, as it is sometimes referred to).
What, why, and how common is it?
When you hear the term ‘self-harm’, what behaviour do you think of? Most people probably think of cutting or harming the skin in some way. While this does appear to be the most common type of self-harm, types of self-harm behaviours can vary widely and range from skin damage to breaking bones and self-poisoning. Any type of behaviour that is done to inflict intentional harm or injury could be classified as self-harm.
People who self-harm may do it for a variety of different reasons, but research suggests that generally, people use it as an ‘affect regulation‘ mechanism. To put it simply, they do it because it makes them feel better in some way. However, researchers and clinicians are not quite sure exactly how or why it works this way.
Research suggests that around 20% of people will experience self-harm within their lifetime, so that’s around one in every five people, and the UK has the highest rates of self-harm of any European country. It’s also important to remember that these statistics are based on the people who have disclosed their self-harm – the true number may be much higher, as there are likely many people who have never sought help and are, therefore, not reflected in the numbers.
Myths about self-harm
- Self-harm is attention-seeking. A common myth surrounding self-harm is that it is done for attention. In reality, self-harm is generally considered to fundamentally be a private and secretive act. Many people do not disclose or discuss their self-harm, as they may feel shame and isolation. Also, as previously mentioned, the main reason people self-harm is probably because it makes them feel better in some way and not to get attention from other people.
- Only girls, goths, teens … [insert offensive stereotype here] self-harm. There is no such thing as a ‘typical’ person who self-harms. My own research included a diverse group of participants aged 16 to 62, of different genders, races, professions, and identities. Self-harm does not discriminate and can affect anyone.
- Self-harm is just a phase; they will ‘grow out of it’. For younger people who self-harm, it may be tempting for others to see it as just a ‘phase’ that they are going through. Some people only self-harm once or twice in their lifetime, while others may continue to self-harm for years or even decades. Therefore, it is unhelpful to tell someone to ‘just stop’ or ‘they will grow out of it’, as this minimises the pain they may be experiencing and it risks alienating the person even further.
- Self-harm is a sign of a much more serious problem. This one is not necessarily a myth, as sometimes self-harm can be an indicator of an underlying mental health problem. For example, self-harm can co-occur with many mental health difficulties, some examples are borderline personality disorder, eating disorders, and depression. However, it is important to emphasise that many people who self-harm do not meet the criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis. The most important thing to remember is that people who self-harm (or have other mental health difficulties) can recover given appropriate support and treatment.
- People who self-harm must be suicidal. Again, this one is not necessarily a myth, as research suggests that self-harm can be a risk factor for suicide in some circumstances. However, by definition self-harm must be performed without suicidal intent (that’s why it’s called ‘non-suicidal self-injury’), and research shows that sometimes people may self-harm as a way of warding off suicidal feelings and thoughts. The relationship between self-harm and suicide is a complex one that we need to learn much more about. The important thing to remember is that people who self-harm or are suicidal can recover, and, by learning more and breaking down the stigma and shame surrounding self-harm (and other mental ill-health), we can ensure that people can speak freely about their experiences and get the help and support they deserve.
Getting help and advice
If you or someone you care about needs help or advice about self-harm, there are lots of resources and organisations that can help. There are many resources and support groups online, such as LifeSIGNS.
A good place to start is your own doctor who can signpost you to the help and support available. If you are in the UK, you can also get further advice from the NHS. You can also check more health facts on FactRetriever.
Jennifer Drabble, PhD is a lecturer in forensic psychology at Sheffield Hallam University and a chartered psychologist with the British Psychological Society.