Self-harm is a major issue in many young peoples’ lives which can be defined as self-injury or self-poisoning, and commonly takes the form of superficial self-cutting with a sharp object. It is surprisingly common, with perhaps 10% of young people self-harming at some point and many more experiencing occasional suicidal thoughts. It is often intentionally hidden from parents and carers.
It can be hard to understand why a loved one would self-harm, and this not-knowing can be painful. The reasons can be varied, and each young person’s situation will be slightly different. Commonly, temporary relief from extreme emotional distress and release of very difficult feelings can be experienced. It can paradoxically be a way to deal with feelings of hurt and anger, or a way to feel more emotionally alive.
At times, it can be a young person’s way of punishing themselves for some perceived or real failing and sometimes it can be used to show others how much they are suffering.
Along with other factors, self-harm can be more commonly associated with:
- relationship difficulties
- female gender
- family discord or breakdown
- drug and alcohol use
- various mental health problems (particularly depression)
- a history of abuse
- stress from sexual orientation
How do I respond?
If worried about a young person, it is important to gently and wisely ask them about self-harm. This can be difficult and takes courage, but can be important for anyone who is struggling.
As self-harm and the associated distress are often hidden, bringing the issue into the light of conversation can be a major breakthrough and may help the person feel understood. Christians are exhorted to be quick to listen and slow to speak or be angry (James 1:19), and this is well applied when speaking to someone who has self-harmed.
If a young person has chosen to confide in you, be encouraged that they trusted you enough to do so. In the right circumstances, it can be helpful to ask what is troubling them and to perhaps enquire directly about possible stresses such as relationship difficulties, bullying, and difficult areas such as guilt, sexual issues, alcohol or drugs.
What can help?
Understanding is crucial. Self-harm is a manifestation of distress and not an isolated problem in-and-of itself. Seeking to understand the stresses and pressures that lie behind it will be essential to helping in recovery.
Reducing these underlying stresses can help e.g. swiftly and effectively managing bullying that may have been happening, or helping a lonely and isolated young person develop friendships. A counselling/talk-therapy intervention may be needed, especially if the self-harm is serious or long-standing. Any suicidal remarks or suicide attempts should be considered seriously.
What about the scriptures?
The scriptures have much to say about the stresses and mental anguish that lie behind self-harm, and about the human condition itself. The following brief remarks may be a useful starting point:
- To those who feel they have nowhere to turn and no-one to hear their cries, we have the example of the Psalmists pouring out their pains to a God who hears (e.g. Psalm 22). So we can encourage a believer struggling with self-harm to pray.
- To a Christian young person who self-harms in an attempt to deal with guilt and despair over serious wrong-doing, we might remind them of the story that Jesus was cut and bled for them, that their wrongs are atoned for, and that they can know freedom and move on with their lives (Isaiah 53:5).
- To a despairing believer who feels that it is “un-Christian” to struggle emotionally, we might point to the example of the Apostle Paul whose burdens and afflictions made him despair of life itself (2 Corinthians 1:8).
- Follow your church’s child protection policy in a church setting
- Consider asking about self-harm if you are worried about a young person
- Ask questions and take time to listen to the answers
- Be patient and supportive
- Consider what lies behind the self-harm and consider how stressors might be reduced
- Ask about suicidal thoughts and take suicidal remarks or actions seriously
- Remain hopeful
- Consider outside help and support including the GP and Lifeline’s 24-hour crisis helpline (0808 808 8000)
- Ignore the issue
- Simply tell a young person to “stop it”
- Get angry
- Say that it is just attention seeking
Resources and References
www.youngminds.org.uk – Useful mental health information for parents, carers and young people.
www.selfharm.co.uk – Lots of information about self-harm.
www.rcpsych.ac.uk/healthadvice/parentsandyouthinfo/parentscarers/self-harm.aspx – Self-harm information from the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
PCI has produced a series of leaflets on social issues including self-harm. They are available for download from www.presbyterianireland.org/Resources/Social-Issues/Social-Issues-Cloning.aspx
If the person is under 18, and in a church setting, follow your church’s child protection policy.
By James Nelson, Consultant Child Psychiatrist. He is passionate about applying the Bible to emotional and mental health issues, particularly early childhood development.
– Originally printed in Wider World, Spring 2017