Myths and Misunderstandings about Self-Harm

  • Myth 1: People who self-harm are attempting suicide
    • Fact: Self-harm is most often used as a way to keep living despite experiencing emotional distress, rather than a way to end their life
  • Myth 2: People who self-harm are just attention-seeking
    • Fact: In fact, they tend to keep their self-harming a secret as a result of feelings of embarrassment, shame or guilt as well as not expecting others to understand or that it is a deeply personal act. It is not ‘just attention-seeking’ however sometimes it can be a cry for help
  • Myth 3: Don’t approach a person who self-harms, leave it to the professionals
    • Fact: Taking time to listen without judging encourages people to get their problems out into the open; the first and essential step along the road to recovery. You don’t need to focus, or even discuss, the self-harming, rather focus on the distress that is underlying the need to harm
  • Myth 4: You will know if someone is self-harming if they have cuts on their arms
    • Fact: Cutting is one form of self-harm; others include burning, hitting, bruising, swallowing, poisoning, etc. There is usually a great deal of effort made to keep the injuries and scars hidden; including actions that leave no mark or a mark in an area hidden by clothing
  • Myth 5: Self-harming is just the latest fashion and young people will simply grow out of it
    • Fact: Self-harm is not a phase or a fashion; read our blog on the different functions of self-harming. Listening to certain music, or dressing in certain ways does not lead to self-harming. People of all ages, backgrounds and of both genders self-harm. Self-harm is always a signal that something is seriously wrong

What is Self-Harming?

In its broadest sense, self-harm describes a wide range of acts that people do to themselves in a deliberate and usually hidden way, which are damaging; includes cutting, burning, scalding, banging heads and other body parts against walls, hair-pulling, biting, swallowing or inserting objects as well as self-poisoning. It is a practice that has not fully settled on a name with other terms frequently being used; self-injury, self inflicted violence, self-injurious behaviour and self mutilation. Currently the phrase Deliberate Self-Harm (DSH) is being used in professional contexts.

Importantly, Self-harm in defined as inflicting immediate and direct physical damage or pain without the intent to kill oneself. The damage can be alarming with the uninformed not being able to understand and, therefore, making the assumption that the act was an attempt at suicide. Self-harming has many varied functions, but it is always a sign of emotional distress and that something is seriously wrong.

It is listed in the DSM-IV-TR (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association) as a trait for diagnosing Borderline Personality Disorder and often associated with mental illness, trauma & abuse, low self-esteem & perfectionism and eating disorders.

People self-harm for a number of reasons, for some people self-harm provides the means to cope with overwhelming emotions, a way to control feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. For others, self-harm temporarily combats feelings of numbness to the world around them. It is important to bear in mind that everybody’s experience is unique, and there are no universal rules or reasons for self-harm.

Read further about the different function of self-harming.