Friday, March 1 is Self Injury Awareness Day, which makes this the perfect time to talk about the stigma surrounding self-harm. It’s a sensitive topic and one that is hard to talk about, and as the subject matter can be triggering to people, please take care of yourself and consider this before you continue reading.
Self-harm is vastly misunderstood. It’s one of those heavy subjects people would joke about during childhood and never quite know how to react to when they got older. This comes partly from fear and partly from confusion. Purposely injuring oneself is not something that is easily understood, as it goes against our natural instinct of survival and self-preservation. The inability to comprehend why someone would do this can lead to judgment and humor to brush off the intense feelings that seeing self-harm may cause.
Firstly, it’s important to note what self-harm actually is. Most people’s minds instantly go to someone cutting themselves, but it’s broader than that. Self-harm includes any kind of purposely risky behavior or self-punishment, which can be anything from bruising to burning to intentionally not looking both ways before crossing the street.
In an email interview with the Counseling and Mental Health Services’ assistant director and director of outreach, Erin D. Cox, she described self-harm as “injurious behaviors (such as cutting) which some people may engage in as a means to respond to their own distress.”
“Self-harm can have varying levels of severity, sometimes requiring medical attention for wound care,” Cox explained. “Typically people who struggle with self-harming behaviors are also struggling with mental health concerns, and thus can benefit greatly from mental health services such as therapy and/or medication.”
It’s important to understand that self-harm is a mental health issue and not something that should be brushed off as anything but that. It’s a destructive coping mechanism that can quickly turn addictive. And like many addictions, people can end up in the trap where they self-harm out of habit or do it repeatedly just to feel something. It’s similar to how people develop a tolerance for certain kinds of drugs and have to increase the dose to feel anything.
Someone can suffer through relapses throughout the duration of their life, and any time they find themselves stressed or overwhelmed, their mind is coded in such a way that self-harm is the first thing they want to turn to. And, because it’s addictive, people may continue to do it without fully understanding why.
Self-harm is especially hard to seek help for, because oftentimes, the person doing it may not think they have a problem. Getting someone to understand they need help might be the first step toward that help.
People may take a lot of steps to hide self-harm, so you may have no idea that someone you care about is doing it. Even then, if you find out, it can be very challenging to bring up the conversation in a way that doesn’t offend the person or cause them to act out further.
“Anytime we approach someone with a concern, it’s important to come from a place of care and support,” Cox said. “Know that, for some people who struggle with this behavior, they have a great deal of shame about it and might not have ever talked to anyone about self-harm before.”
Self-harm is a hard topic to talk about, which is why it's important to have discussions like this. By helping decrease the stigma around it and making the subject less taboo, our society can have more open discussions that help connect people to the resources they need.
“For less urgent concerns, students can contact our office to set up a phone assessment with a clinician to determine which of our services may be the best fit for them,” Cox said. “This might include brief individual therapy, group therapy, a meditation class or a number of other options. Students who have concerns about using insurance or the cost of services should contact our office so we can find an option that works for them.”
Helping someone else can be more complicated, and if worded the wrong way, bringing up any concerns with them can run the risk of sounding accusatory or escalating the situation further.
“Let the person know that you are concerned for them, and that you are there to help connect them to resources (such as CMHS) if they are willing,” Cox said. “Make sure you know what resources are available before your conversation, and have them readily accessible if the person accepts your offer of help.”
Starting this conversation might feel daunting, but don't be afraid to have it.
Like most sensitive topics, it’s important to not make jokes about it, as you never know what someone might be going through. As the weather gets warmer, a lot of people will be wearing t-shirts and shorts, which means some of their old scars may be visible. Don’t point them out or stare. If the person is comfortable enough to talk about their past with you, then they will bring it up on their own accord.
And, as a final note to everyone: There is help out there, and you can get through anything and everything life puts you through. There are alternate stress relievers out there you can resort to instead of self-harm, such as drawing on your skin with a pen or rubbing ice over your forearms. You are incredibly strong, your scars will fade and you will get through this.
If you or someone you know is struggling with self-harm or other mental health issues, please seek help at counseling.uconn.edu, or call the Counseling & Mental Health Services at 860-486-4705. The office is located on the fourth floor of Arjona and is open Monday through Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Friday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Additionally, for urgent matters, you can call their 24/7 crisis helpline which can be accessed through their phone number.
Courtney Gavitt is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.