A Change in the Way We View Self-Harm
A cut from a knife on the arm, commonly thought of as painful, damaging to the skin, and an accident. Most would agree they do not want to experience this cut and try to avoid it happening; they don’t want the blood or the pain. Pain is seen as bad, however there is a large population of people who are intentionally causing pain upon themselves through methods labeled as self-harm. Self-inflicted pain from harming is a behavior that is more common than most think and has been around for centuries. It is estimated currently that nearly two million American’s practice some form of self-harm. From birth someone associates pain with sadness, and something to avoid so it is almost impossible to understand why some people would hurt themselves. The truth is self-harming has benefits and pain may still hurt but it helps and the current mindset of telling people to stop is actually causing more harm than help.
Harming is defined as the action of injuring or damaging something. Self-harming is the action of intentionally injuring or damaging oneself. There are numerous ways to self-harm; the more popular ways of doing so are cutting, burning, punching oneself or throwing oneself at hard surfaces. In most cases a person that is self-harming is usually in a state of high emotional distress. The act can be premeditated but can develop into an impulsive behavior. Overtime the behavior becomes an addiction and increasingly harder to stop. Becoming addicted to pain may seem impossible however it happens more than most expect. About one in ten young people will self-harm at some point during adolescents. Harming can start at any age to anyone and spares no demographics. Most harmers keep their behavior a secret and do not look for help, this makes finding the popularity in the action hard to determine.
People who self-harm are struggling with intolerable distress or difficult situations. Common problems that lead to harm are abuse, depression, poor body image, relationship problems, and unemployment. The feelings associated with harm are hopelessness, isolation, lack of power, and sadness. Feelings are replaced with the pain from harming. Self-harming can help the person feel in control and reduces feelings of tension and distress. It has been scientifically proven that while harming the brain releases endorphins to cause a feeling of happiness. Ironically causing pain to the body is a natural emotional pain killer. It can also be used to punish oneself to relieve feelings of guilt and anger. For these reasons the intentional pain is a coping method, similar to the way a person may cry and feel better afterwards. Harmers become reliant on the behavior of self-harm as a coping method, it may not be the healthiest way of coping and may just be a temporary fix but it works. If it didn’t work at all people would not do it and many would not become addicted to doing so; however about one in three people who self-harm for the first time will do it again during the following year. Almost as if it were a drug, self-harmers become dependent on the quick fix of harm and feel the need to do it to get through daily problems. Becoming dependent creates a huge problem when trying to stop, the person goes through withdrawal depression and relapsing is very easy. It also often turns into a compulsive behavior that can seem impossible to stop.
Shame and guilt are feelings that are created after self-harming. A method that helps relieve bad feelings shouldn’t bring about other new bad feelings. The person starts feeling the shame due to the stigmas that are associated with people who harm. The majority of people do not understand self-harm, therefore there are many myths created about the topic. Most think people who self-injure are crazy and dangerous. This is completely false. Many people who harm suffer from anxiety, depression, or trauma. Self-injury is their way of coping and labeling people as insane only creates these feelings of guilt that creates an increase in anxiety or worse depression. It is not helpful. Being told constantly to stop the behavior also increases to the guilt and is not at all helpful. Another big myth associated with self-harm is that people who do it are suicidal. The intention of self-harm is not to kill oneself and majority of those who do so do not want to die. They are coping, not giving up.
A large portion of people who do self-harm often begin to question the point of stopping. Harming can become a person’s only way of relieve the problems but it comes at a cost. The temporary fix causes problems. The relief is usually followed by new feelings of shame from the harming. The feeling of shame from doing so causes the person to also hide the behavior from family and friends making the person isolated from the rest. Keeping the behavior in secret causes for less safe ways of harming for example using old razors with rust to cut oneself because it is the easiest to get and hide. Also keeping it a secret leads to ignoring when the injury would need medical attention and only letting an infection get worse.
Self-harm is viewed mainly as a problem, this being said it has many therapists trying to stop the behavior. The stigma created by society of calling self-harm an issue that needs to be taken care of actually only fuels the behavior and has created a major problem with current help methods. Traditional approaches are is to see self-harm as a suicide attempt. Although a large portion of people who have committed suicide were previous self-harmers, the majority of those who harm do not want to kill themselves. There is a risk when cutting to accidently cut too deep or sever a major vein but these account for only two percent of total suicides. Dying from self-harm is not easy, if the goal is to die then a person would use a different method such as hanging or a gun. Self-harm has the benefit of delaying suicide. The relief from the emotional pain calms the person before they do anything radical. Dealing with self-harm in a severe and interventionist manner as if the person is ready to die is wrong. Health services now in place for harmers tend to put the focus on preventing incidents, rather than changing the problems, doing so often causes more incidents of harming. There is clearly a problem with our traditional form of help.
Dr. Samantha Warner is a practicing clinical psychologist who is in support of self-harm. She sees it as a positive statement and semi-therapeutic. Her opinions on harm are “Whether it be smoking or cutting oneself, self-harm can be an imaginative way to cope with trauma. To avoid shaming people who self-harm clinical psychologists should not assume that self-harm is wrong.” Too much emphasis is places on the symptoms and not the causes. She is currently in support of a new radical approach that rather than trying to stop harm, allows people a “safe self-harm”. This safe self-harm approach’s goal is not to force people to stop their coping method or tell them they should stop. Instead it allows them to keep doing as they please but supporting doing it safely. For example clean cutting material, proper care of wounds, and not damaging too much to the point of extreme medical attention. This approach may sound like it is supporting self-infliction of pain but is actually allowing for the person to deal with their problems until they can figure out the causes for their harm and solve those causes. Telling somewhat what they are doing is bad adds to the guilt and guilt causes them to self-harm. Taking away the guilt automatically relieves the person of that reason for harming.
The safe self-harm approach is still controversial but is being practiced in some health care partitions. Some hospitals permit the patient to be provided with a hospital-owned cutting implement or for the patient to have their own. It can then be used for private self-harming.
“the implement is sterilized to reduce the chance of infection. It is established that the patient in question self-injures regularly (e.g., has visible scarring) and knows how to dress wounds, and the patient is then provided with the necessary materials to do so. To reduce the risk of impairment or accidental death, the patient agrees to speak with the care team if the team has any concerns about the severity of the injuries. The care team is aware of the early warning signs of the self-injury escalating beyond an agreed level and has the patient’s permission to intervene if this occurs”
This is how the hospital insures that it will be a safe self-harm situation. The risk of a problem is significantly lowered and the patient is allowed to deal with their emotional distress without being judged. This is more beneficial to the person than being forced to quit and go through withdrawal depression. When caretakers are in support of the action the harmer is more likely to be honest about when and how badly they are harming, instead of keeping it a secret and having to hide to get their release. Inflicting pain at a hospital can sound crazy but it is the right way to approach self-harm.
Self-harm is a misunderstood behavior that many people are not informed about. Everyone sees all the bad side effects of it such as scars and depression but there are benefits. There is a distorted view of what self-harming is and it is only making self-harming more dangerous. The safe self-harm approach can change the lives of self-harmers but first we need to change the way doctors and society sees those who injure themselves to feel better.
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