You may work with someone who uses self-harm as a coping skill. You may have also used, or currently use it, as a way of coping with things that feel out of control.

Self-harm is any behaviour that inflicts a physical injury on oneself. Self-harm is common, and is engaged in by people of all ages and genders. . People may feel numb or overwhelmed with pain;. self-harm can be a means to let the pain out or gain a sense of control. Self-harm is not a mental health condition but can be a way that someone copes with a mental health condition. When we support the underlying needs of a person, they will be less likely to self-harm.

With any tool we use to cope, there may come a time when we find that the tool no longer serves us. This is something we need to figure out for ourselves. Sometimes we find new wellness tools or coping skills, and then once we are using them, we realize some of our older tools don’t serve us anymore.

If self-harm is new to you, it is essential that you pay attention to your own biases and judgments about it. There is an existing stigma around self-harm; it’s important to be aware of how it informs your own thoughts about it. If it is something that is new to you, it can be easy to shame someone and reinforce the stigma. Because of your own discomfort, you may become very directive or try to be “helpful,” giving advice and telling them to stop. Taking this kind of approach, or giving advice to someone who self-harms is not helpful.  Telling someone that they shouldn’t self-harm will never be effective. Contributing to shame and stigma is never helpful.

We need to understand that self-harm is a reaction or response to other overwhelming problems in a person’s life–problems such as low self-worth, trauma, loss, overwhelming emotions, extreme stress, bullying or many other issues. Many people who self-harm have expressed feeling numb and a loss of control of their life and discuss self-harm as a coping tool to help release the pain.

It’s important to know that people who self-harm most often keep it secret and can feel ashamed about it. A myth that can be out there around self-harming is that the person wants to die. That is not the case. People tend to self-harm to cope with their deep pain. Extending kindness, love and compassion is an important way we can support someone who self-harms.


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Post-Secondary Peer Support Training Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Jenn Cusick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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