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What is self-harm?

When she was eight years old, Juliet took her father’s Swiss Army knife, fascinated by everything it could do. She marvelled at the idea it could perform as a pair of scissors, as tweezers, as a screwdriver, a toothpick… and a blade.

The first time she slid the knife over her skin, “it was out of curiosity, like, ‘What would happen if I did this?’

“You’re not dumb at eight years old,” continues Juliet. “I obviously knew it was going to cut me, so in retrospect, I think it was a much deeper curiosity.”

Juliet was the youngest of four children. Her father was an alcoholic and a verbally abusive parent, and even though he never laid a hand on Juliet, the pain he inflicted on her was “very, very damaging.

“I was an overweight kid and he never let me forget how embarrassing I was because I was so big, and he’d blame me for him having to work so much because he needed to buy so much food to feed (me),” says Juliet. “That stuff is hard to hear as a healthy adult, I would imagine. As a kid, that’s really (expletive) hard.”

This instance, the discovery of the knife, was the first time Juliet began cutting herself, something she would continue until only last year, at the age of 32.

“That first time hurt, but only for a second. I looked at my skin, I looked at the blood, I felt the pain, but wow was it ever a relief from everything else.”

Self-harm is not just cutting; it’s any behavior that involves a person causing direct harm to themselves, without suicidal ideation or intention. For many people, self-harm is a coping mechanism, an outlet for the person to be able to deal with their difficult feelings and thoughts. Some people cut, as Juliet did; others may burn their skin, hit themselves purposefully, or pick at wounds so they never heal. Self-harm can also involve substance abuse, reckless driving, or non-lethal drug overdose.

Professionals explain that self-harm usually starts with a person hurting themselves once to alleviate the pressure of their bad thoughts, and because the relief from the distress is temporary, they do it over and over again to make the “good” feeling last longer. Unfortunately, shame tends to be a part of the self-harm cycle, which causes a dangerous, continual pattern.

Self-harm is often a deep, dark, painful secret for many people, as they believe self-harm is rare and uncommon. This makes self-harm even more destructive on the mind than it is on the body – people who participate in self-harm are already feeling difficult emotions, made worse by feeling alienated. Many are scared to talk to therapists or especially friends or loved ones about their behavior, because they’re so ashamed, and because they think no one could ever understand such a strange activity.

But the truth is is that self-harm is not at all uncommon. Self-harm or self-injury can affect anyone at any time, regardless of age, creed, or background. Those who have endured sexual, physical or verbal abuse are certainly at higher risk of developing such behavior, as well as those currently living in isolation or in toxic environments, but anyone can develop this behavior anytime.

Even though self-harm is not a diagnosable mental illness on its own, it can certainly be a sign of another underlying mental health condition. Those with PTSD, borderline personality disorder, eating disorders, anxiety or depression may self-injure.

Self-harm, when left untreated, can lead to a number of serious issues, like scarring, infection or even death. This is why it’s so important to seek help as soon as possible. Many effective treatment options are available to those who simply need to be given the opportunity to learn and build new coping mechanisms for thoughts that feel too much to bear.

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