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Myths about self-injury



Self-injury is a manipulative act –

Although some people self-injure to communicate their distress, and elicit care and help from others, most people who self-injure do so in private and hide the behaviour and their wounds from others. People usually self-injure to manage negative emotions and alleviate distress rather than to manipulate others.


Self-injury is a sign of mental illness –

Many people who self-injure do not have a mental illness and most people diagnosed with a mental illness do not self-injure. However, people who have a mental illness, such as depression, anxiety disorder, substance abuse, eating disorder, or borderline personality disorder may self-injure.


People who self-injure will “grow out of it” eventually –

While self-injury can be a relatively minor and temporary behaviour that occurs mostly in adolescents and young adulthood, some people who self-injure in adolescence continue the behaviour into adulthood. People can also start self-injuring in adulthood. However, the long-term course and consequences of self-injure are not well know due to a lack of longitudinal research.



Self-injury is a woman’s problem –

Females and males are equally likely to self-injure. However, females are more likely to self-injure by cutting and scratching, and males are more likely to self-injure but hitting themselves or punching walls. Females are also more likely to seek help for self-injury and may start self-injuring at an early age than males. This may explain why self-injury is commonly thought of as a women’s problem.



People who self-injure have been sexually abused –

Although sexual abuse is a risk factor of self-injury, the relationship between sexual abuse and self-injury is modest, and not all people who engage in self-injury have been abused, while not all people who have been abused engage in self-injury. There are many reasons why people self-injure, with people often reporting more than one reason as to why they self-injure.



People who self-injure are just trying to get attention –

Self-injury is often mistaken as attention-seeking which can make it difficult for people who self-injure to seek help. Although some people may self-injure to get attention, most people self-injure in private and conceal the behaviour from others. When people do self-injure for attention, many are trying to externalise their distress and send a message to others about their inner pain so that they can be helped. Therefore, self-injury can be best thought of as a cry for help rather than an attempt to gain attention.





Self-injury occurs mainly among people of certain social groups (i.e., emo or gothic) –

Self-injury does not discriminate and people who self-injure can be of any age, gender, family background, ethnicity, and socio-economic group.


Self-injury is a failed suicide attempt –

People who self-injure are generally not trying to attempt suicide, but self-injure to overcome negative emotions and alleviate distress to feel better. Moreover, some people self-injure to avoid thoughts of suicide and suicide attempts.  Assuming that self-injury is a suicide attempt or that people who self-injure are suicidal can be distressing for people who self-injure, and prevent them from seeking help for self-injury in the future. However, people who self-injure can also report suicidal thoughts and attempt suicide, and it is important to consider whether the person is at risk for further self-injury and future suicide.



People who self-injure should stay home from work and students kept home from school until their wounds have healed –

While self-injury can be distressing for others and may trigger some people to engage in the behaviour, it can take some time for people to stop self-injuring so asking people who self-injure to stay home from work or school until their wounds have healed is impractical. Asking people to stay home from school or work until their wounds have healed can also serve to further isolate people who self-injure and limit their contact with people who could potentially help them to overcome the behaviour.



People who self-injure can be a danger to others –

People who self-injure generally engage in the behaviour in private and keep their injuries and behaviour to themselves so they do not upset or burden others, especially the people who they care about.



The best way to deal with people who self-injure is to make them stop –

Sometimes people who self-injure can stop engaging in the behaviour on their own, without help from family and friends, colleagues and partners, and teachers and healthcare professionals. However, because the behaviour can become an entrenched coping mechanism in response to internal pain and stress, it can be difficult for people to stop if they do not have other ways of coping. People who self-injure can also react more emotionally to events and experiences than people who do not self-injure, making it difficult for them to stop self-injuring without professional help. Therefore, telling people who self-injure to stop the behaviour tends only to alienate the person and may cause they to avoid seeking help for the behaviour in the future.



There is really no way that I can help solve some of the problems of people who self-injure –

While even mental health professionals experience uncertainty, hesitation, and helplessness when responding to people who self-injure, there are certain things that people can do to help people who self-injure. Simply letting the person who self-injures know that you are there for them and available to listen is a great start. Being open and honest with the person who self-injures that you are concerned and would like to be able to help where you can is also great, while taking a non-judgmental stance can help the person to feel that seeking help is not as scary as they perhaps once thought. Although this may not seem like much, your initial response, and the level of support and understanding you show, will help make the process of seeking professional help for self-injury less intimidating.



Here are some important facts about self-injury to keep in mind:
  • Self-injury is a coping strategy

  • Self-injury provides a release of anger, anxiety, and stress

  • Self-injury helps people to deal with problems

  • Self-injury provides a way of staying in control

  • Self-Injury provides a distraction from thinking

  • Self-injury is an expression of emotional pain

  • Self-injury helps people to maintain a sense of identity and stop feeling numb

  • Self-injury provides an escape from depression and anxiety

  • Self-injury can be difficult for others to understand and can be scary to talk about

  • People can and do recover from self-injury



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