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Self-harm is widely misunderstood and there are many myths associated with it, which can make it difficult for people to ask for help. When people hear about cutting, using knives, razors, or shards of glass to cut their skin and draw blood, there is a reaction of horror, disgust, and instant judgement. The reasons for such reaction are complex. One of the explanations is that we, in Western culture are not able to attach an appropriate meaning to the activity of self-harm.
The first published reference to cutting is in the New Testament, Gospel of Mark. Mark describes a man living in a graveyard who is believed to be possessed cutting himself deliberately with stones.
Islamic healers in Morocco work themselves into a ritual frenzy and slash open their heads. Sick people attending the ceremony dip bits of bread and sugar cubes in the healer’s blood and eat them. For this group, blood from the healer is believed to be potent medicine.
Not until 1938 did Karl Menninger attempt to delineate self-mutilating behaviour into separate categories, although he linked them together by a psychoanalytic concept. Since mid 1800’s, psychiatrists have published sporadic case reports and clinical studies on this topic, but the subject failed to achieve either academic acceptance or public acknowledgement. Only in 1993 was the subject of cutting given a prominent position, as a cover story in a popular magazine.
Self-injury is ultimately a destructive coping mechanism where the abuser is also the abused. It can be defined as the attempt to deliberately cause harm to one’s body. It is a deliberate, direct, non-suicidal destruction or alteration of one’s body tissue. Victims mutilate themselves in attempt to cope with their troubled lives. It is a strangely effective coping method for dealing with an inner pain, so overwhelming it must be brought to the surface.
It can provide the necessary ‘buzz’ or element of distraction for many people who need to block out painful feelings that threaten to consume them. This behaviour can become an overwhelming preoccupation and a person can become addicted to their self-harm.
It is a hidden distress. Many people believe that they are the only ones who hurt themselves in this way. The distress incites feelings of fear and shame and people often keep it a secret for number of years.
Self-injury, self-mutilation, cutting, delicate cutting or self-harming, auto-aggression are all names given to this condition. It takes many forms of presenting, like cutting the skin with razors, broken glass or other sharp objects, it could be breaking their own bones, head-banging, scratching or bruising, hitting the body with objects, skin-picking, burning or hair-pulling. It is generally used as a means of coping with overwhelming psycho-physiological arousal. It expresses emotions. It helps the sufferer to deal with feelings of reality or numbness, to make flashbacks stop, to punish the self and stop self-hating thoughts.
It is more about relieving tension or stress than it is about anything else. Most people who harm themselves tend to be perfectionists who are unable to handle intense feelings. They find it very hard to express their emotions in any other way. They have a dislike of themselves and their bodies and self-injury is a way of punishing themselves and of expressing their feelings and emotions.
People who self-mutilate are more than their behaviour. Their lives are infinitely richer; their stories are more complex than that single label might indicate. When people hear about self-harm, they tend to place labels on the victim as being psychotic or crazy, which is why so many people find it very hard to come forward to ask for help.
Until society dispels the myths surrounding this condition through education, sufferers will continue to isolate and keep this mechanism to themselves letting this form of abuse to continue in secret.
How To Help
- Show that you care about the person
- Offer compassion and respect
- Help the person to build a support network around them
- Tell the victim that this condition can be cured and it is alright to talk about it
- Remind them that they are not alone
- Help them to express their feelings, memories and needs, other than through self-harm
- Don’t look on stopping self-harm as the most important goal. Although a person may make great progress in many other areas, they still may need self-injury as a coping mechanism
- Understand that recovery can take a long time to be achieved
- Encourage each small step the person takes in leaving this condition behind
- Look for support yourself