One in 12 young people in the UK self-harm yet all too often their friends and family are unsure about what to do or how to help. I spoke to a student who has experienced self-harm, about what helped her most and how the stigma around self-harm can be broken down.
Can you tell me a little bit about self-harm?
It can be very hard to understand why someone causes physical harm to themselves. I even find it difficult to comprehend as someone who has experienced self-harm. It's hard to explain that I was mentally hurting so much that hurting myself physically seemed like the only way to 'cope'.
I've heard people saying that self-harm is 'just attention seeking', what do you think about this?
Attention seeking is often associated with self-harm and sadly this may be due to the fact people don't have enough knowledge about it. This dismissal of self-harm puts an unbearable stigma on those who are genuinely suffering and need to receive help. The majority of people who self-harm often hide this from the people around them and it can be a very private thing. Regardless of the reasons why, have you ever stopped to think a person must be pretty desperate to physically cause themselves harm on purpose? We need to encourage one another to be compassionate and non-judgemental.
Yes, I agree and I think we need to see a shift in the way we think about 'attention seeking'. If someone is experiencing something difficult in their lives, paying them attention is no bad thing! Students need to be helped to support their friends who are experiencing mental health difficulties.
People may question why would a young adult who has amazing friends and family, and is doing well at university would feel so negatively towards herself that she has to damage her body? They may think, how will this even help? Is this just a stupid thing to do? It's understandable that these questions arise, but they aren't the best ones to be asking.
What would be the best questions to ask?
It may seem difficult to approach at the start, but you are capable of supporting someone experiencing self-harm. In my experience, saying "I care and am here for you" or offering out your hand and asking "is there anything I can do?" can make a huge difference.
The best thing my friend did was to not judge me or make any assumptions about my behaviour. It was really helpful for me that someone was aware of what I was experiencing, but this didn't mean that we had to talk about it 24/7. In fact we didn't talk about it much, because often I didn't have the words to explain what I was feeling and why I was doing what I was doing. But she was always there, whether I was feeling the need to self-harm or not I could spend time with her; be it watching a movie, going on a walk or just chilling together with a cup of tea, the distractions helped, but most of all her friendship and support helped.
When I realised that my friend didn't judge me for what I was doing, it made me recognise that I was able to seek help and I didn't have to overcome this on my own, talking to her about it was a big step, a scary step at the time, but a step I will never regret.
What would you encourage others to do?
I don't want others to feel the need to keep their experiences a secret like I once did. We need to start conversations about self-harm, and learn how to talk about it.
Student Minds, the UK's student mental health charity, is fundraising for their new peer support workshops 'Supporting Supporters' which aims to empower students to support friends experiencing self-harm, you can find out more about it here.