Thousands of young people across South Africa hurt themselves daily in the hope that some emotional pain they feel will be relieved. Although so many teens are hurting themselves, the topic is still very rarely spoken about and is largely misunderstood. It’s time we brought the discussion out into the open.
What is self-harm?
Self-harm is when you intentionally hurt yourself, sometimes as a way to deal with emotional pain like sadness, fear, anger or loneliness. Sadly, in some groups of teens, self-harm has become a “cool” thing to do, and there are lots of websites out there that glamorise self-harm, suggesting that self-harming will make you popular.
There are many ways people hurt themselves. Self-harm includes: cutting the skin; burning the skin; hitting one’s head against a solid object; picking skin so it can’t heal; scratching the skin; breaking bones; and self-strangulation. Cutting is by far the most common of these. A variety of sharp objects are used for cutting including scissors, knives, blades, pens and cans and many areas of the body are targeted (arms, legs, stomach, chest). Very often the self-harmer will harm on parts of their body that they are able to keep hidden so that nobody will know about the issue.
Who is at risk?
Teenage girls are more at risk than boys, especially if they:
- have friends who self-harm
- have a poor body image
- react over-emotionally to small things or get very angry or upset for little to no reason
- have a hard time expressing their feelings
- are depressed
- have lost a friend or boyfriend
- are going through a tough time at home (like a divorce, death or fighting).
Why do people self-harm?
It is not fully understood why hurting the body helps some people to feel better emotionally but some reasons may include:
- When hurt, the body releases endorphins and adrenaline which makes a person feel better for a while.
- The physical pain gives the person something to focus on instead of their emotional pain.
- For some people the physical pain is easier to cope with than the emotional pain.
- Sometimes depression creates a numbness. Pain can cut through this numbness and the person can ‘feel’ again.
Why is it dangerous?
Many people start self-harming because their friends do it or because they saw something on TV once, but have no idea about how dangerous it is. They hear it might help them to feel better emotionally but they don’t sit down to think about the long term consequences of this behaviour. Before you fall into the self-harm trap, please consider the following:
- Hurting yourself often leaves scars that you may be left with for the rest of your life. You may be okay with wearing long sleeves all the time now, but will that be the case for the rest of your life?
- There is a high risk of infection if you use unsterilised objects to self harm. These infections can enter your bloodstream, and be very dangerous.
- Even though you may not mean to do so, you could hurt yourself much more severely than you anticipated.
- Self-harm can become an addictive issue. Your brain associates the endorphin and adrenaline release with feeling happy so craves more and more pain to get that ‘high’. Once you get addicted it is very difficult to stop without professional assistance.
- The relief you get from the self-harm only lasts a very short time and is then replaced by feelings of guilt and shame. The pain you feel needs dealing with properly, not just temporarily relieving.
- The guilt and shame make you hide what you are doing from other people. This eventually leads to you withdrawing socially and becoming lonely.
How to get help
- The first step is really to tell someone. This can help to break the cycle. Who is the person that you most trust? Tell them. Explain it in whichever way you feel most comfortable. If you can’t talk about it in person, try writing an e-mail or letter. If you don’t feel you can talk to anyone you know about this, contact Childline or SADAG (details at the end of the article).
- The next step involves identifying the triggers that make you want to hurt yourself. Is it anger? Is it sadness? Is it that you feel nothing? If possible, get help from a medical professional.
- When you can identify your triggers you can develop new ways of responding to them. For example, if you hurt yourself because you are angry, you could try punching a pillow. If you self-harm to express pain, try journalling or writing poetry or talking to someone you trust. If you self-harm to feel more alive, take a cold shower, or hold an ice cube in the crook of your arm or eat something with a really strong taste (like a lemon or peppermint).
- Adolescent Self-Injury Foundation website suggests a great way for girls to motivate themselves to stop self-harming. It’s called the Butterfly Project and simply involves drawing a butterfly on the place where you usually hurt yourself. If the butterfly fades without injury, it means that the butterfly has flown away unharmed. This is meant to give you a sense of achievement. If you do self-harm before your butterfly fades away, wash it off and draw a new one and start again. Every time a butterfly fades without being harmed, add a new charm to your bracelet. Visit www.adolescentselfinjuryfoundation.com for more information.
Everyone has bad periods in their life, and you need to know that even if you feel very alone right now, you are not. There are plenty of people who care about you, and the way you treat yourself. If you are struggling – talk to someone. Alternatively contact Childline on 08000 55 555 or SADAG (South African Depression and Anxiety Group) on 0800 12 13 14.