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Opening a Dialogue; Self-Harm Among Loved Ones

What is Self-Harm?

Self-harm is defined as the act of harming oneself without suicidal intent. It is impacting “5% of adults” and “10% of teenagers” of the population (Laye-Gindhu pg.1). In addition self-harm is gaining attention from mainstream media and becoming more of a prevalent issue. This coping method spawns from overwhelming feelings such as anger or isolation in both females and males. The feelings involved vary depending on the gender due to gender roles in society. Females report self-harming because of the pressures placed on them to be good enough. Males on the other hand report self-harming to “punish themselves” or boredom (Laye-Gindhu pg.5). Self-harm is linked to mental disorders such as anorexia, depression, anxiety,borderline personality disorder, and more.

Chemical Response

Self-harm does not necessarily mean that an individual is suicidal. It can be a cry for help or a way to cope with the feelings they are going through. Since it allows a release to overcome feelings of loneliness, boredom, sadness, anger, and more it can be a coping method for these individuals. Although about “half of those who commit suicide,” stated by NHS Choices, have had a history of self-harm. There is an addictive aspect to those participating in these actions. One is a chemical response of endorphins released in the brain when self-harming. Hence the individual becomes used to this chemical response and relies on the feeling in the future.

The feelings that drive someone to find release in self-harm are unique to the person. There are a few common drives that have been researched by Mary Nixon. A traumatic event such as sexual assault or abuse is a push towards finding control. This control, release of guilt, and other emotions provide that space for finding something they are in control of. Another focus is mental disorders, from depression or anxiety. An individual that has the feeling can be in control when feeling overwhelmed. The act also serves to numb themselves to the emotions of sadness and loneliness.


Self-harm comes in many forms such as burning, cutting, and hair-pulling, scratching, or punching their bodies, misusing substances, and starving. Additionally, engaging in risky behavior can be a form of self-harm. This risky behavior can be for example, reckless driving whether it be speeding or swerving on the road. While it can vary depending on the individual, it can depend on what is available to them. Whitlock researched among college students what methods they used and reported that many used “between 2-4 self-injury methods.”

Signs of Self-Harm

Physical Aspects

With the mode of self-harm coming to light and the addictive aspect, it is time to acknowledge the signs that someone may be self-harming. First of all, acknowledging physical aspects that indicate a person is going through this can be fresh bruises or cuts. There may be scars on their body, not limited to arms but legs, or stomach. When attempting to hide these physical wounds, someone may wear long sleeves to cover their arms. Additionally there may be frequent bandages, and long pants to hide these injuries.

Personal Lives and Medical History

Aside from physical aspects, noticing the family of the loved one can provide insight. If their parents are going through a divorce, or seeing that they are being abused can be an indicator that they are going through a difficult time in their lives. From family issues, it can be a traumatic event that the individual went through such as sexual assault or a loss of someone close. Again, listening to what the loved one is going through is key to gaining insight about how they are feeling at that point in their life.

Family mental health history can be a relevant point to focus on. It can provide information if the individual is likely to have a mental disorder pasted down in their genetics.Concluding that self-harm may be linked to mental disorders ranging from depression to eating disorders. Mental health history can allow further identification of what feelings the loved one may be having.

Behavioral Signs

Behavioral signs can also show that an individual is not feeling themselves. These behaviors can be withdrawing from social outings or hanging out. They may become quiet and not find joy in activities they enjoyed in the past. Being able to acknowledge if they are misusing substances such as alcohol or drugs when going out to a party can provide that difference in behavior. In addition, other behavioral signs can be poor impulse control in their daily lives. Finally, when they are talking, whether joking or in normal conversation, saying phrases that express they are feeling “worthless, out of control, or hopeless” (Nixon pg.6).

Safe Spaces

Understanding self-harm as a whole can be difficult for a friend, or someone that has not been through it themselves. Addressing the concern with a friend or family member can be daunting at first. Consequently, whether or not they will come across in a manner that will be helpful to the person self- harming is a prevalent question. As a result, to provide a safe space for open communication for this loved one there are some steps you can follow:

  • Ask how they are feeling
  • Do not have judgment towards the individual or the action
  • Do not make them feel guilty about the effect on others
  • Let them know you are ready to listen to them
  • Use compassion and respect even though you may not understand their feelings
  • Do not give them ultimatums
  • Do not overreact or appear shocked
  • Practice patience
  • Seeking professional help or offering it as a suggestion
  • Provide love and support to the individual
  • Reaching out to a trusted adult (counselor, parent, etc.)
  • Honesty towards seeking professional help
  • Provide coping techniques they could try
  • Practicing self-care for you as individual
  • Education on the topic of self-harm
  • Crisis Hotlines

Hotlines and Support

Crisis Text Line: 741-741

  • Hotline that uses text rather than calling to communicate with individuals

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800- 273-8255

Crisis Call Center: 775-784- 8090

Poison Control: 800-222- 1222

  • If you or a loved one has ingested poisonous chemicals and need immediate help

Teen Help Adolescent Resources: 800-840- 5704

To Write Love on Her Arms: https://twloha.com/

  • Movement to help connect those going through self-harm

Inspire: https://www.inspire.com/

  • Online support groups connecting individuals going through similar struggles

Coping Skills

Feeling It Out and Coping: Self-Harm and Self-Care


Laye-Gindhu, A., & Schonert-Reichl, K. A. (2005). Nonsuicidal Self-Harm Among Community

Adolescents: Understanding the “Whats” and “Whys” of Self-Harm. Journal of Youth and

Adolescence, 34(5), 1-11. doi:10.1007/s10964-005- 7262-z

Ltd, B. C. (n.d.). How to Support Someone Who Self-Harms. Retrieved June 13, 2017, from

http://www.befrienders.org/how-to- support-someone- who-self- harms

NAMI. (n.d.). Retrieved June 13, 2017, from https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental- Health-

Conditions/Related-Conditions/Self- harm

Nixon, M. K., Cloutier, P. F., & Aggarwal, S. (2002). Affect Regulation and Addictive Aspects

of Repetitive Self-Injury in Hospitalized Adolescents. Journal of the American Academy of Child

& Adolescent Psychiatry, 41(11), 1333-1341. doi:10.1097/00004583-200211000- 00015

Schutte, S. (2007). Helping a Family Member or Friend Who Cuts. Retrieved June 13, 2017,

from http://www.focusonthefamily.com/lifechallenges/abuse-and- addiction/conquering-cutting-

and-other- forms-of- selfinjury/helping-a- family-member- or-friend- who-cuts

Sourander, A., Aromaa, M., Pihlakoski, L., Haavisto, A., Rautava, P., Helenius, H., Sillanpää,

M. (2006). Early predictors of deliberate self-harm among adolescents. A prospective follow-up

study from age 3 to age 15. Journal of Affective Disorders, 93(1-3), 87-96.


Tracy, N. (2016, August 26). 10 Ways People Self-Harm, Self-Injure – Self Injury – Abuse.

Retrieved June 13, 2017, from https://www.healthyplace.com/abuse/self-injury/10- ways-people-

self-harm- self-injure/

Self-harm. (2015, April 6). Retrieved June 13, 2017, from http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Self-


Self Mutilation Symptoms and Effects. (n.d.). Retrieved June 13, 2017, from

http://www.timberlineknolls.com/mood-personality/self- injury/signs-effects/


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  1. A very important and well written article. I myself self harmed for a long while, I am now two years clean and very proud, sadly I do still know many other people male and female my age that are still struggling with it. More than anything I think this is a very important article for loved ones of a self harmer that have never went through the experience to read. Aside from the improper formatting of your citations ( I see that has already been pointed out above however) I can honestly find no content flaws within the writing. I greatly appreciate that you started with the biological component of self harming very early on as this is information that can tend to be overlooked which I think largely is what leaves room to write self harmers off as “attention seekers” unfortunately. The repetition of the fact that the behavior is a real addiction is also very important to me and I’m glad it was started thusly. A very professional and informational piece.

  2. You did a great job with writing this article.

    I appreciate the structure weigh which you wrote about the topic going from an explanation of what the behavior is, following up with the biological basis behind the behavior, then methods and signs of self-harm.

    I feel as though this would be a great reference for someone who suspects this of a friend or family member.

    I didn’t see this touched upon as a motive for self-harm, but I’ve spoken with people who’ve done so to ground themselves after a period of dissociation.

    A very complex and underreported topic.

    Thanks for writing!

  3. It’s good to see an article about a still somewhat touchy subject like self-harm. Looking at the article as a whole, I think you did a good job in relaying the different aspects of said subject. Including different hotlines for support at the end was also good, considering someone who would need the help and stumble upon this article would then be able to try those out if they haven’t already.

  4. I enjoyed reading this article. Self harm, in my opinion, is a topic that has often been overlooked. It is something that’s in the back of our minds but no one wants to open up about it. This being said, I would like to thank the author for starting this discussion. Hopefully, this article could lead to self-reports from previous or current self harmers or a more in depth look into the topic.

  5. I liked how you included all the basic and practical information that someone seeking to understand this topic would need as a starting point. In particular, I found the portion about the methods of self-harm interesting. Usually when I hear about self-harm it includes the individual harming with something that leaves behind a physical mark. I never thought that risky behaviors, starving oneself, and misusing substances counted as self-harm, in the way it’s talked about in this culture. Nor did I know that people who self-harm usually utilize more than one method to do so.
    Furthermore, I liked how the content was presented quite clearly and flowed quite nicely. However, there are a few points that distracted a bit from the message and made the piece a bit unprofessional.

    There were instances in the article where you made a claim that seemed unsupported by what you wrote in the same paragraph. Examples include the claim that, “The feelings involved vary depending on gender due to gender roles in society.” in the introduction and “Therefore, self-harm is linked to mental disorders ranging from depression to eating disorders.” in the section Personal Lives and Medical History. In the first case, the sentence is a bit awkward as it repeats the difference in genders is the cause and it claims something unfounded or even just not clarified in the same paragraph or prior: a correlation between gender roles and difference of reasons for self-harm due to biological sex i.e. the examples are not strong enough to defend such a specific claim. On the other hand, the second claim was stated as an obvious conclusion when, to me, it seemed to flow better as a premise in that particular paragraph i.e. because self-harm is linked to mental disorders it would be helpful to pay attention to the history of them within the family tree; the other way around would have worked too if not for the “therefore” that suggests a proven conclusion.
    Additionally, there were many areas where a comma would have improved the flow of the sentence including after phrases such as “first of all” and “in addition”. Finally, I also agree with Tiara that in-text citations of the MLA and APA style ought to be placed at the end of the sentence and not in the middle.

  6. This is pretty informative, thank you. I have a good friend who cuts and though she posts it on social media, she does not actually open up about it in front of friends. I have been feeling helpless as to what can be done. Any suggestions?

    • Hey there Jaslin,
      You are being a wonderful friend by reaching out and wanting to support her! Sometimes it can be a hard topic to reach when they’re not opening up about it. Have you been able to talk to her about her posts on social media?

        • Jaslin,
          When I self-harmed, I was very much closed off to my friends about what was going on. Sometimes there is shame associated with the wounds, and what’s going on. I can empathize because I wanted people to know, but didn’t want them to talk to me about it. Sort of confusing signals though- right?
          It took some time for me to come to terms with the self-harm, and feelings behind it. It also helped when people asked me about my home life, rather than focusing on the act itself. In this article, figuring out where the problem is spawning from can help to identify what’s going on. Starting a conversation with her about feelings (feeling sad, mad, etc.) or finding something that is causing her negative emotions.
          Other than that, you’re being a wonderful friend by not pressuring her to talk about it, or causing her discomfort! She’s lucky to have someone looking out for her. She may not be open to talking about it, but letting her know she has someone as a friend can be a great thing as well. It takes time to come around and acknowledge feelings, and it can be a trying time for both you and her.

          • Hi Beth,
            Thank you for sharing this with me! It does help me in understanding my friend better. I’m sure we’ll work things out 🙂 Thank you so much!


  7. This was good and informative. It will never not be important as mental health illnesses continue to arise in our society. One little comment about your formatting technique in regards to in-text citations. Make sure to put them at the end of the sentence, not really in the middle of the sentence after the specific paraphrased information. I’m assuming you’re using APA or MLA format but, if not ignore my comment. Overall, this was cohesive and easy to read with all the subheadings for each topic.

    • Thank you so much for pointing that out to me Tiara! Since I recently had been writing in MLA the siting format was a bit different. But I’m glad that you pointed it out, and I made the changes.

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I am currently an undergraduate senior with a Sociology&Psychology major and an English minor.
I am fascinated by all sorts of mental disorders, but mostly those that affect one's moods. Also, I love researching about how a certain drug or addiction could have an impact on someone's mind.

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Opening a Dialogue; Self-Harm Among Loved Ones