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How to Support a Loved One Who Self-Harms

March is Self-Harm Awareness Month (also known as Self-Injury Awareness Month), an annual global awareness event and campaign where people make special efforts to raise awareness about self-harm and self-injury. The goal of the people who observe this event is to break down the common stereotypes surrounding self-harm and to educate medical professionals about the condition.

Trigger warning: Self-Harm

Susan B. Raphael & Krystal Dujon-Riboul

It not easy navigating how to appropriately support someone who self-harms. You may feel hopeless and at loss with what to do especially if the person is not open about their struggles. You may notice that they have new cuts on their arms, burn marks and more indicators of self harm. You may feel unsure about how or whether you should help. This article will give you some brief tips and insights on how to support your loved one.

To adequately support someone, you should have some knowledge on self-harming behaviours. People self-harm for various reasons such as; stress, mental illness, anger, trauma and more. It is often used as a coping method and a means of self-expression.

There may be physical or behavioural signs that someone is self-harming. Below is a list of some signs and symptoms you may observe as indicators of possible self-harm. Please note that this is not an exhaustive list as there many forms of self-harm.

Common indicators are:

  • Mysterious cuts, bruises or burns on the body

  • Increased alcohol or drug use especially with pills

  • Changes in behavioural habits especially eating habits such as over/under eating or sleeping habits

  • Unwilling to wear clothes that show skin such has legs, thighs, arms and wrists

  • Becoming secretive

"Scars tell the story of where you've been. They don't dictate where you are going." ~ Anonymous

When you notice such signs, it may be very confusing and you might not know how to approach the matter. It is also confusing when someone opens up to you about their self-harm. It is most important that you approach the subject calmly with no shocking reactions such as facial expressions. This is especially crucial if you see the self-harm marks. Your loved one will feel raw and vulnerable discussing this topic and needs to feel comfortable enough to address it with you.

Here are a few supportive things you could say to a loved one:

"I have noticed new marks on your arm. I care about you and would like to help. Would you like to talk about anything with me?"

"You have seemed very distant lately as if you are carrying a lot of pain right now. Are you hurting yourself?"

"I care about you, which is why I am concerned about the marks on your arms. I would really like to talk about it if you are comfortable."

Things NOT to say:

"You're just seeking attention."

"Life can't be that hard, you're just not trying hard enough."

"You are being weird and the cuts look bad."

"Can I see your cuts/How do you do it?"

You should also address the risk of self harm and whether it requires immediate professional assistance. You may feel like you are betraying your loved one if you have informed a professional about the issue however self-harm is potentially very dangerous, and the safety of your loved one comes first.

It can feel powerless to help your friend but this may be beyond your scope. Most importantly, you must remember that supporting someone should not impede your own personal boundaries. Supporting someone who self-harms may warrant seeking professional help.

Always listen with empathy, compassion and without judgement. Your loved one needs to know that they are supported no matter how complex their situation is. It is important that you stay grounded and keep an open line of communication, especially if it is becoming uncomfortable for you.

Stay safe.

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