Warning: it can be upsetting and potentially triggering to read information about self-harm. If you feel vulnerable, you might not want to read the information below.
Self-harm might seem like an issue exclusively impacting younger people, but actually it affects people of all ages - whether they are sons, daughters, parents or even grandparents.
People who self-harm will hurt themselves as a way of dealing with difficult feelings, painful memories or overwhelming situations and experiences. In some cases, people might self-harm because they intend to die. According to the NHS, more than half of people who die by suicide have a history of self-harm.
But how can you tell if a loved one is harming themselves? Laura Peters, head of advice and information at Rethink Mental Illness, says there are a number of signs to look out for. Not just in terms of physical wounds but also behavioural changes.
“The clearest indication to look out for are the physical signs,” she explains.
“Self-harming is a physical act that leaves some form of wound on the person. Traditionally this can be a cut on the wrist, but there is no guarantee that this will be the manner by which they hurt themselves.”
She advises to look out for a series of physical injuries in a similar location on the body. “One scratch or bruise might not equate to self-harm, but consistent injuries in the same spots can be a warning sign,” she says.
It’s worth noting that if a person doesn’t want other people to know they are self-harming, it’s likely they’ll hurt themselves in a hard-to-see area.
“If there are no obvious signs but you’re still worried, there are a number of things that you can look out for,” Peters explains. “The most obvious is a change in behaviour that typically come with being ill.”
For example, the person might become reserved or even evasive when you ask how they are. “This can be difficult to accept, as you might want to help them. It is vital that you remain patient, and make sure not to push them,” she urges.
If you suspect a loved one is self-harming, it’s also good to keep an eye on what they’re wearing. “Long sleeves, high collars and a reluctance to expose bare skin can all signify self-harm when considered alongside other clues,” Peters adds.
There aren’t any generational differences in the signs of self-harm, according to spokespeople from both Rethink Mental Illness and Mind. However it’s important to be aware that older people do self-harm.
“Cuts or bruises should not be discounted as someone just getting clumsy in their old age,” Peters says.
“When an older person self-harms, the risk of further self-harm and suicide is substantially greater than that of a younger person, so any hint of self-harming should be taken very seriously.”
Stephen Buckley, head of information for Mind, says people who are worried about a loved one should let them know you are there for them whenever they are ready to talk about how they feel – even if it’s just a text or an email.
He adds: “Listening to them non-judgementally will help them open up and will give you the opportunity to them to seek support from their local GP or support groups.”
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org