Self Harm: All Just Attention Seeking?

By Terry Streather | Mental Health

Mar 01

​"Self harm is all about attention seeking, they want people to think they are going to kill themselves"

"It's something that teenagers do to make themselves seem terribly interesting and troubled."

On all accounts: wrong.

Have you ever needed a wee so badly it hurt? I'm talking leg crossing, bouncing up and down gritting your teeth badly?Do you remember the moment you got to the loo? The sheer relief and feeling that everything was ok now?That's exactly how a young lady described the feeling she got when she cut her arms. And she's not alone.

The UK has the highest self harm rate in Europe.

You might be reading this thinking "Well that's just ridiculous, how can cutting your arm be a relief?" and I hear you. Personally, I have never self harmed, and trying to empathise with someone who does is really difficult.

But as a mental health first aider I understand that it is not my job to judge a persons actions based on my frame of reference. What is important is understanding that to that individual, the self harming "behaviour" has a purpose.

And that's what self harm is... Behaviour.

It's not in itself an illness, although it is very often a reflection of whats going on inside; a persons way of coping with something they are struggling with.In most cases it is a very private act. If someone finds out people are often hugely embarrassed, which in itself generates more internal conflicts.

There are some real issues with the statistics; the way incidents are recorded for example (it may not be immediately obvious that injury's are self inflicted, assuming they are reported at all! So in reality, we have a "best guess" as to the scale of the problem. As is customary in a blog like this, I'm going to share some numbers.

​One study showed that as many as 5% of the female population and 3% of males have self harmed at least once in their lives.

Here's some more, with pictures: In a long term study conducted in England between 2000 and 2012, 87,000 incidents of self harm were examined. Of those 87,000...

Self harm can take many different forms, and the stereotypical image is that of a teenage girl with a razor blade, cutting- usually the arms or legs. But there are others. One study showed that 82.2% of incidents of self harm were in fact poisoning- overdosing on drugs or alcohol, or other substances.

There are lesser known forms too, like burning; pulling out clumps of hair and taking serious risks with their own personal safety, like driving too fast or deliberately getting into fights.

Why do people self harm?

People of all ages, genders, races and social status engage in self harm. Obviously we are all different and there isn't a single reason. And in some cases (particularly those abused as children) the act of self harm may not even be a conscious choice at all,; it can happen in a "trance like" or dissociative state.

There is a common factor however: an underlying state of distress.

The act of self harm can be a method of coping with that distress, or communicating the significance of it. It may also literally make a person feel better. We know that when injured, the body releases natural pain killers (endorphins) which can alter mood.

Some people may feel a need to punish themselves for there actions (or perceived actions) and others say they self harm to feel something.And for others it's about control. When everything in your life is out of your control- for example personal circumstances, pressures or expectations at work, school or home, the act of self harm is perhaps the only thing in the persons control.

A key point to highlight in all this is that:

Self harm is not attempted suicide. Quite the opposite in fact- it is a coping method to keep alive.

People who self harm are not trying to get attention or take their lives- and most of the time it is a very private act. If someone finds out about scars it causes huge embarrassment, and people will very often do all they can to avoid being found out. How then, is that attention seeking? 

Where to get help

Today, the 1st of March, is Self Injury Awareness Day. If you, or someone you know is struggling, or you would just like more information, check out these websites.

Selfharm UK: https://www.selfharm.co.uk/

Harmless: http://harmless.org.uk/

NSHN: National Self Harm Network: http://www.nshn.co.uk/

https://www.selfharm.co.uk/http://harmless.org.uk/http://www.nshn.co.uk/
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About the Author

Terry is Director and Head of Training at Oakwood. He helps clients promote a proactive, rather than reactive approach to both personal safety and the positive mental health of their staff. He has over 12 years teaching experience in these areas, and advises organisations in the development of appropriate risk assessment and policy.