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Why is self-harm so difficult to talk about?

Self-harm is never an easy topic to discuss. When we talk about why someone cuts or burns their body, there are usually many complex reasons behind it.

People who self-harm may have experienced (or are currently feeling) intense sadness, trauma, loss, anger or other strong feelings.

Talking about them can make some people feel uncomfortable — and even more so if the reasons behind it are not fully understood.

Even so, self-harming behaviour happens throughout the community. One 2014-15 analysis found there were 136 hospitalisations for intentional self-harm per 100,000 people across northern, western and central Melbourne.

It’s worth noting that these are just hospitalisations. The number of incidents where people engage in self-harm that do not result in hospitalisations is estimated to be much higher.

So what is the best way to understand self-harm? Why do people do it? And what is a good way to talk about it?


What is self-harm?

Self-harm is when you deliberately inflict pain, injury or damage to yourself. It is often seen as a way to deal with intense emotional discomfort. If you have been thinking about hurting yourself or self-harming, you are not the only person to have felt this way. It is a fact that some people use self-harm as a way of coping with difficult times in your life.

Self-harm is usually not a suicide attempt. People who do it usually don’t set out to end their lives. Instead, it’s a way to cope with, or feel some relief from, strong negative feelings. This kind of behaviour is often linked to strong emotions like guilt, depression and anxiety.


Self-harm and stigma

One of the difficulties faced by people who self-harm is that there can be a lot of stigma around it.

This can be particularly difficult for the person who self-harms if, as in some extreme cases, the self-harm behaviour can be seen (for example, if the person has scars from cutting themselves over a long time).

It is important to understand that someone who self-harms is not being “crazy”. Self-harm should not be seen as shameful or a cause of embarrassment about a person’s family or friends.

People who self-harm do it because they are feeling negative emotions that are quite strong. Most people who self-harm are not doing it for the attention — they often do it in private.


What causes self-harm?

People who self-harm have often gone through tough times. Examples of why people hurt themselves could include:

  • Finding it difficult to express strong feelings like sadness or anger.
  • Losing someone close, like a parent, brother or sister.
  • Being bullied or abused, including emotional, physical, and / or sexual abuse.
  • Intense emotional pain and loss.
  • Mental illness like anxiety and depression.

People who self-harm may do it in different ways. It could include cutting, burning, self-medicating, scratching, biting or pinching oneself.


Your safety

If your self-harm has reached the point where you or someone else are concerned about your physical safety, for example, blood loss or the risk of infection, seek immediate medical attention at your local GP. In an emergency, go to your local hospital’s emergency department or call 000 and ask for an ambulance.


Why do I self-harm?

Hurting yourself may feel like it releases and helps deal with emotional pain. Some people believe it ‘expresses’ intense negative feelings that they cannot put into words. Others believe it gives them a sense of control. In some people, it can be a kind of self-punishment or a way to let others know that they need help.

However, self-harm only gives temporary relief. It does not allow you to work through your feelings. After a while, you may find that you need to hurt yourself more and more to get the same relief. If this behaviour goes on, your self-harm could become a common thing that happens again and again; you might start to see it as the only way of dealing with problems in your life.


4 alternatives to self-harm

When you feel like hurting yourself, remember that there are other ways to deal with the emotional pain. You could try the following:


1) Delay it

Try to speak to someone first before you feel like self-harming. If you can’t do that, at least try to wait for a period of time. You might find that you no longer feel like self-harming.


2) Get distracted

Distract yourself if you are thinking about self-harm. Go for a walk. Listen to music that expresses how you feel. Do exercise. Or do an activity that you enjoy. For example, do you remember that hobby you used to like (or always wanted to try)? Now is a good time to get back into it.


3) Do something else

You could try something else that doesn’t cause harm. Try punching a pillow or punching bag, holding ice inside your elbow, or try another activity that helps “let it out” as if it were self-harm, but that is much safer.


4) Try to relax

Self-harming behaviour tends to happen during feelings of distress. There are ways to relax that can help deal with it, like taking a bath or shower, or deep breathing and meditation.


These things will not ‘fix’ self-harming behaviour. However, they can be a short-term way to deal with the problem while you get help from a counsellor or psychologist. These negative feelings, although intense, do pass.


Getting help for self-harm

Self-harm can become a repeat-behaviour. It can also be dangerous to your health. Not only that, but it doesn’t get to the real reason for the emotional pain.

Self-harm is not a solution to underlying issues. It is far better to talk about them and resolve them safely in your own time. You can do this getting in touch with your GP, health professional or from a free professional counselling service like CAREinMIND.


How to tell my friends or family about my self-harming?

If you are worried about how to talk to someone about your self-harm behaviour, you could start the conversation like this:

  • “I’ve been feeling angry / sad / annoyed / guilty about this thing in my life.”
  • “It all started when…”
  • “Things have been hard and I am feeling…”


If you find that talking about it feels like too much, consider writing down your feelings. You can give them to someone who can help you. You could share this with a friend or family member first — they can give their support by helping you get the right help.


Concerned? Talk to a professional counsellor on 1300 096 269. It’s free to people in north, western and central Melbourne and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.


The CAREinMIND blog is delivered by On the Line. The views in each post do not necessarily reflect those of North Western Melbourne Primary Health Network.