In this world of self care & mindfulness it seems like everyone thinks they’re a therapist. Don’t get me wrong, sharing what works for you & talking about our mental health is great. It’s just that, to put it bluntly, some people talk crap. Others just regurgitate tired old advice that ain’t helping anyone. Man alive, I’m sick of it.
I want to talk specifically about the useless chatter surrounding self harm. I’ve been hearing & seeing the same patronising advice for YEARS. The most frustrating part is it often comes from people who really should know better. So, allow me to take you through why so much of the standard advice is just plain bad.
1/ Draw on your skin instead of cutting/burning etc.
This one usually takes two forms. The first opines that whatever relief/release a person may find in hurting themselves they can also attain by simply drawing on their skin. Now, let me ask you this, if drawing lines on yourself would make you feel better would you be causing physical trauma in the first place? The answer is of course, no. The components of self harm that serve a purpose vary, it may be pain, blood, disfiguring the skin or even a need to punish oneself. None of which needs are met by drawing.
The second part of the draw on your skin nonsense is the idea that you draw something pretty (often a butterfly) where you would normally self harm. The desire to preserve the ‘body art’ is then supposed to dissuade a person from ‘spoiling’ their skin. The stupidity of this idea is obvious. If actually scarring oneself will not prevent a person from harming themselves it seems very unlikely that spoiling a temporary drawing will. Even if by some miracle a biro butterfly were enough to assuage overwhelming distress, the body has a lot of flesh. Are people to cover every inch of themselves in rainbows & roses?
2/ Have a hot bath, cup of tea, blah, blah, blah…
Imagine the kind of agony you would have to be in to take a scalpel to yourself & cut for hours. Do you think a nice bath would magic that away? The answer is no. A bath helps you feel better at the end of tiring day. It does not release you from excruciating emotional pain.
3/ Distract yourself.
The need to self harm is powerful & persistent. For some reason lots of people (both professional & laymen) believe the urge is fleeting. I often see those struggling told to distract themselves until the urge passes. This advice betrays an ignorance regarding the workings of self harm. The need to hurt oneself does not easily wane. In fact, the longer a person self harms the stronger the compulsion becomes. Often it is impossible to focus on anything else. No sleeping or eating or thinking until the hunger to hurt is sated. It isn’t possible to distract oneself from that level of intrusion. When you cannot function on the most basic of levels watching a film or phoning friend are not options.
4/ Throw away your self harm tools.
The rationale here being that if one does not have the apparatus used to self harm, then self harm is impossible. WRONG.
As already discussed the compulsion to injure oneself is incredibly strong. Desperate people become ingenious. Trust me, when you really need to, you can hurt yourself with anything. Believe me again when I say those fraught & frenzied moments are when people make mistakes. As incomprehensible as it sounds self harm can be the very thing keeping someone alive. Asking or obligating an ill person to give up their lifeline is dangerous. It is also cruel.
5/ Ping your wrist with an elastic band/hols an ice cube in your hand etc.
My objections to this one are again two fold. To begin with it’s just ineffective. Self harm is both a habit firming & escalating problem. A person almost always experiences a need to increase the severity of their injurious behaviour. This takes us right back to the start. If the nip of an elastic band were sufficient, no one would be putting themselves in hospital via self harm.
A more serious objection, though, is the message this sends. Telling a vulnerable person that hurting themselves is ok, is a head fuck of massive proportions. Self harm is never the real problem, it is a symptom. In order to tackle self harm one must deal with the underlying issues. That is hard work, time consuming work. It’s much easier just to counsel harm minimisation. In doing so, you validate a sick person’s maladaptive thought process. That mental health professionals routinely tell patients that hurting themselves is ok is a disgrace. The basic premise of the hold an ice cube/ping an elastic band technique is that hurting yourself is a reasonable response to emotional turmoil. Just don’t do it badly enough to bother other people. By suggesting someone harm themselves in a small way you have shifted the conversation from, ‘let’s help you not hurt yourself’ to ‘hurt yourself in ways that do not draw attention to the act’. It is ignoring the root of the problem & allowing a person to believe that they are deserving of pain. It’s lazy, it counter productive & it is bullshit.
If you are struggling with self harm or you know someone who is, don’t feel helpless. When you are searching for help & find only these sort of suggestions it can feel like there are no answers. Whilst there are no quick fixes, there is hope.
See your Gp. If they don’t listen or offer help, see another Gp. I know this is exhausting at a time when you can least afford a fight, but please, don’t give up. If you have a friend or family member who can be your advocate, take them with you. You deserve treatment. You deserve care.
If you have badly injured yourself please seek medical advice. Again, if you have a friend or family member who can support you, take them along. If you do not & are worried about how you will be treated taking a copy of NHS NICE GUIDELINES can be helpful. You are entitled to be treated with the same compassion & respect as any other patient. Most emergency personnel will do this, but a few may need reminding of their duty. Being able to quote these guidelines helps in such situations. As scary as this may sound, do not put yourself at risk by avoiding treatment. You are worthy of diligent medical care.
If you are not yet ready or able to see a Dr, you can contact The Samaritans 24/7.
Call – 116 123 (uk)
Email – firstname.lastname@example.org