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Real talk: what is self-harm?

In 2019, nervous and “twitchy,” Christa says she thoughtlessly scraped the inside of her arm with the sharp, flat end of a tweezer, drawing blood in the process. “I remember taking a deep breath because it alarmed me,” shares Christa, now 29. “But not because I freaked out that I was bleeding. I was alarmed because it felt, I don’t know, relief, somehow? In that split second I wasn’t thinking about the catastrophe of my life… it was just about the cut.”

Christa would keep cutting herself until late 2020, when her family discovered her “secret” and supportively intervened.

Self-harm, or self-injury, is the behavior that involves a person deliberately causing harm to their body without intending to commit suicide. Individuals who self-harm are usually trying to overcome overwhelming emotions – by doing this, they feel like they have a sense of self-control, or that they’re punishing themselves for having bad thoughts or bad experiences, or as though they’re escaping from traumatic events or memories. Self-harm is much more common than people think.

Self-harm is different for many people. Some, like Christa, cut themselves. Others burn their skin. Some overdose on drugs, others hit their heads or other body parts against hard surfaces, while others purposely prevent wounds from healing. Other dangerous behavior, like promiscuity, binge drinking or reckless driving are considered self-harm as well.

Usually, self-harm starts when a person “learns” to hurt themselves as a way of feel better from painful thoughts and emotions, but they learn that that relief is temporary – so they do it again and again, and sometimes more frequently, so that the relief doesn’t have a chance of fully going away. Some self-harm and stop, returning to it later; others carry it on often and over the long-term.

Why do people self-harm? There’s no clear answer to that. Some people who self-harm say that they’re so angry or upset that they need to take it out on something or someone somehow, and rather than channel their rage elsewhere, they go inward and take their pain out on themselves. Others might not have opportunities to find relief, unable to find a support system or to even verbalize how they feel.

While self-harm can affect anyone at any time, regardless of background, some are at higher risk of this behavior than others, like those who have experienced physical, sexual or emotional abuse, or those who live in toxic environments. People who are bullied, or unsure of their own identities, are at high risk of self-harm too. Those with low self-esteem and self-worth are also at risk of developing self-harming behaviors.

It's important to remember that self-harm is not an “attention-seeking” behavior. Not even close. Those who self-harm do so in secret and don’t want to draw any attention to themselves, nor do they find it pleasurable or enjoyable. Self-harm is largely a way to “manage” difficult, traumatic experiences and feelings.

Left untreated, self-harm can cause permanent scarring, infection, and in worst case scenarios, fatal injuries. But it doesn’t have to end that way – there is help for self-harm.

If you or someone you know is self-harming, please reach out to a mental health professional. They will, without judgement, interview and assess the individual, and create a recovery plan that may require a combination of talk therapy and medication, depending on other underlying issues or the severity of the symptoms.

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