Top 12 Self-injury misconceptions

Self-injury is a very misunderstood topic. It’s often something which is brushed under the carpet for fear of not being socially acceptable. This means that there are many misinformed beliefs held about self-injury. Below are my top 12 misconceptions.

1. Self-injury is a purely attention seeking behaviour

For the majority of people who self-injure it is not to simply gain attention from others. For most people self-harm is an unhealthy means of coping with stress/mental illness. Whilst in some cases it may be a cry for help it is often a silent one. A lot of people with this difficulty go to great lengths to cover it up even if they want help.The idea that people self-harm purely for egotistical reasons is a deep misunderstanding of the behaviour. This view is often used to simplify, down-play mental health issues and provide misinformation.

Also bear in mind that a person with a lot of scars, such as myself, are not trying to show off their scars by wearing a t-shirt. We’re just trying to get on with our lives with the scars that we carry from previous tough times.

I can also assure you that those who do self-injure only for attention are met with a very dim view in the mental health community.

2. Only females self-injure

Studies show that 30% – 40% of people who self-injure are male.

3. Self-injury is defined as those who cut themselves

Self-harm encompasses a lot of behaviours such as cutting, burning, asphyxiation, anorexia, bulimia, alcohol abuse, drug taking, overdoses, biting, impact with objects and hair pulling, among others.In fact it’s likely that at some point in your life you will partake in an activity which would be considered self-injury. It’s just that you don’t necessarily link it to mental health distress.

4. There’s nothing you can do to help

I think that once you say this statement you are either already admitting defeat or you would like to intentionally avoid the issue. In reality there are many things you can do to help.The best thing to do is listen to them and don’t judge. If you can’t understand how to to help it’s likely that you won’t relate to their point of view. However the only way forward is to listen to the person and support them.

Don’t be dismissive, be open to understanding circumstances which are not your own and try to be reassuring that their situation can improve. You don’t have to have all the answers, you just need to show some empathy.

5. A person who self-injures is a danger to others

Self-injury is most often the result of anger turned inwards. It is also usually something done in private or secrecy and does not endanger others. You shouldn’t be afraid of someone who self-injures.

6. People who self-injure enjoy pain

Whilst pain is an inevitable by-product of self-injury it’s rarely something people do because they genuinely enjoy it. Even if they do it’s a relative pleasure. For example it may be that the emotional difficulty is so painful that a physical pain is a relative relief. However just to get an emotional break you can hardly say that it’s an enjoyable experience.If it was only about pain there are plenty of other ways to generate that, which are not shared by most people who self-injure.

7. Self-injury is related to suicide or suicide attempts

Most people who self-injure are not attempting or planning suicide. Many forms would not even carry the risk. Self-injury is primarily used as a means to cope with emotional difficulty. It’s not an intentional act to end one’s life. In fact those who self-injure are more likely to report to health professionals that they are having suicidal thoughts or plans.Self-injury is often a spur of the moment decision, based on a current emotional state. Suicide is more commonly contemplated over time and more methodically planned out.

There are some self-injury behaviours such as asphyxiation which could result in accidental suicide or brain damage and the risk should be considered seriously by health professionals.

8. Anyone who self-injures has a personality disorder

Emotional distress is caused by all sorts of circumstances, you can’t generalise all self-injury behaviour as being the result of a personality disorder. As I mentioned before self-injury is a means to cope with emotional difficulty, the difficulty itself is not only defined by self-injury behaviours.

There’s no defining characteristic of self-injury that automatically gives a diagnosis of a personality disorder. I would also add that in the UK, in my experience and others, the NHS over diagnoses borderline personality disorder without the proper psychiatric investigation.

9. People who self-injure are all part of a goth/emo group in society

Those who self-injure come from all ethnicities, faiths, genders, sexualities and economic backgrounds. They listen to different music, are interested in different fashion and have different political views. Many work in demanding jobs, are teachers, students, therapists and medical professionals.In short it’s impossible to tell from looking at someone whether or not they self-injure and even you had a line-up of all that do, there would be no single societal aspect that would bring them together.

10. Self-injury is about manipulating others

Self-injury is about emotional regulation, not manipulating others. Many people who self-harm feel guilty about the affects it has on others around them but feel this is the only way they can regulate their emotions. It’s not an intentional way to control others.

11. Stopping self-injury is simple, you just stop

Well, if it were that simple then no-one would have a problem with it. As someone who has self-injured for many years I can assure you that it’s very addicting. Some forms of self-injury do produce dopamine in the brain which it’s hard to get away from. Also by finding a useful way of coping (not healthy but useful) it’s hard to see what else can help as much.In my experience and others I know, self-injury is really a symptom of a larger problem and until that larger problem is addressed the need to cope in this way won’t disappear. I should also point out that people don’t always know what the problem is from the outset, if often requires discussion with professionals to figure out the key issues. It’s a nuanced issue which need nuanced answers.

12. People who self-injure are weaker than those who don’t

Firstly it’s impossible for you to know what emotional difficulties a person is dealing with, you also don’t know if those issues are conscious or not. It’s also impossible for you to know how those emotional difficulties compare with other people. It’s not something that can be quantified.You should be very careful if you classify those with mental illness as weak. In many cases mental illness is the result of negative actions by others and many consider this generalisation to be extremely offensive.

I hope you’ve find this information useful, if you have any questions or comments let me know below.

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