The idea of people hurting themselves in order to feel relief seems counterintuitive to most of us. We react with fear, horror, disbelief and defensiveness; blaming others or ourselves in order to make sense of a phenomenon we don’t understand. These acts, when performed by people we love, become a source of panic.
Conventional wisdom states that cutting behaviors are associated with the desire to complete suicide or are an attempt to get attention. In some cases this may be true, but for the majority of people who self harm it is a way to alleviate pain, communicate that they are in pain, disrupt a state of numbness or act as a way of defining oneself separately from others.
As a family member or friend who does not use cutting as a method of coping you can probably think of much healthier ways to alleviate pain, be in the moment, and express or define yourself. You likely have skills that allow you to regulate your emotions and have a tool-kit of coping methods that you utilize during difficult times. For those who turn to self harm their emotions are dysregulated and the tool-kit either empty or shallow.
Self injury is most often a symptom of an underlying issues. While more females than males turn to cutting as a coping mechanism there is still a considerable amount of self injurers who are male. Treatment for cutting behaviors focuses on decreasing the cutting behavior and increasing coping skills but also attempting to reach the core issues that contribute to the desire to cut.
Cutting behaviors often start in adolescence and incidences can run from a one time attempt to a lifetime of self injury behaviors. Early detection and intervention during the teen years can help significantly in reducing the likelihood of cutting becoming a core coping strategy.
Here are some tips on how to help your friend or loved one when you've noticed or fear that they have been turning to self injuring behaviors:
DO NOT punish them. Punishing only isolates and shames the individual and can increase cutting behaviors. DO stay calm, DO share your concern and worry and DO encourage them to seek professional help.
DO NOT ignore it. Ignoring it discounts the pain that the person may feel and allows for the continuation of self harming behaviors. DO talk about it, DO set a good example by demonstrating positive and healthy coping strategies and DO encourage them to seek professional help.
Lastly, DO NOT assume that because they are cutting they are suicidal. DO assume that because they are cutting they are hurting, DO show them compassion and DO encourage them to get professional help.
Disclaimer: If your family or friend does indicate that they are having suicidal thoughts get them help immediately.