talk to someone about self-harm

How to Talk to Someone About Self-Harm

When your friend or family member engages in self-harm behaviors, you are naturally concerned. March is Self-Harm Awareness Month, which is a good time to learn more about the behavior and about how to help. Understanding how to talk to someone about self-harm is important when you want to help them but are not sure what to do.

Self-Harming Behaviors

When an individual hurts themselves by cutting, burning, pulling out hair, or some other behavior, it is a sign of emotional distress. Self-harm is not a mental illness in itself but rather is a behavior that may be associated with illnesses such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, borderline personality disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The behavior often indicates the individual’s need for better coping skills to deal with stress or other adverse conditions in their life.

Warning Signs

When you are concerned about whether a friend or loved one may be harming themselves, watch for some of the warning signs. If they have frequent bruises or bandages or if they wear long sleeves or pants even when the weather is very hot, they may be trying to hide their injuries or scars. In addition, they may make statements that come across to you as hopeless or worthless, they may have difficulty getting along with others, or they may have poor impulse control.

Discussing an Uncomfortable Topic

Talking to someone about self-harm is not easy. You may worry that you will embarrass or anger your friend or family member if you bring up the subject. It is an uncomfortable topic, but if you have that conversation, you could be instrumental in encouraging them to get the help they need. Some things to keep in mind when you need to talk to someone about their self-harm behaviors include:

Keep the communication door open. Don’t hesitate to talk to your friend or loved one and let them know they can talk to you. Most people who self-harm do wish that someone would talk to them, even if they may have an initial negative reaction to your attempts.

Set aside a time to be alone for the talk. Don’t try to talk to the individual when other people are around or when there are too many other distractions.

Encourage your friend or loved one to speak freely. Show respect and ask them about their experiences. Questions such as “how does injuring help you feel better?” can help encourage them to open up about their need to self-harm.

Let them know you are concerned. Reassure your friend or family member that you want to help. Share an observation of when you noticed the signs that they were self-harming. Also be sure they know that you are not trying to judge them. Show them empathy, not pity.

How Not to Talk to Someone

Just as you need to know how to talk to someone about self-harm, you also need to know what to avoid doing when having that conversation.

You should not:

  • Promise to keep their self-harm a secret.
  • Take personally their behavior or their reaction to your attempts at conversation.
  • Give your friend or loved one an ultimatum about stopping their behavior.
  • Get upset if they don’t agree with your ideas or your efforts to get them into treatment.
  • Pressure them into doing anything.

The Importance of Getting Treatment

Many people who self-harm also feel a sense of shame about their behavior. They carry permanent physical scars as well as mental and emotional scars. In addition, if they use drugs or consume alcohol while harming themselves, they could be at risk of more severe injuries.

When you talk to someone about their self-harm behaviors, you can gently encourage them to get treatment. Reassure them that self-harming is not uncommon and there are professionals who can help. Guide them through the process of getting help by encouraging them and assisting them with understanding what kind of help is available.

Connect with Recovery Without Walls for Help

The professional team at Recovery Without Walls is here to help with mental health issues as well as problems with drug and alcohol use. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we encourage you to email or call us for care and answers to your questions. Our providers continue to work to help you through treatment and recovery. We focus on evidence-informed research, exceptional psychotherapy, and integrative healing methods. Contact us today to learn more about the link between mental illness and substance use disorder and to get help.