Understanding Why Some Turn to Harming Themselves


Bipolar and Self-Harm

Bipolar and Self-HarmFirstly, I want to safeguard anyone who may find the topic of self-harm a trigger. I want this article to raise awareness, increase understanding and encourage empathy, but to do this I have to be very honest. I will therefore be mentioning methods of self-harm, why people self-harm and my personal experience. Please consider your personal safety before reading any further.

I have thought in depth about writing this article because I remember how I felt about the words ‘self-harm’ prior to my diagnosis seven years ago. In all honesty I felt very uncomfortable. My thoughts consisted of, ‘Why would anyone do that to themselves,’ ‘It’s mutilation,’ ‘It’s a cry for help,’ and, ‘Attention seeker.’

I had no knowledge or understanding of self-harm and certainly didn’t consider it a coping strategy for mental distress. To summarize, I was completely ignorant and I’m not afraid to admit it.

According to Mental Health America: “It is estimated that about two million people in the U.S. injure themselves in some way.  The majority are teenagers or young adults with young women outnumbering young men.”

And these are just the reported cases.

An Expression of Distress

We need to talk about self-harm. Conversation and support can force open the doors that currently shut away this secretive and seemingly shameful behaviour that in truth, is a clear expression of distress.

You will note I use the term ‘expression of distress.’ I learnt the importance of this from volunteering to share my personal experience on Mental Health First Aid England training courses. Self-harming is not attention seeking nor a cry for help. Who on earth would intentionally injure themselves to gain somebody’s attention? The behaviour is personal and often hidden and indicates a desperate need for relief from intense emotional pain and overwhelming feelings.

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We all know what it’s like to have a bad day at work or an argument with a partner and reach out for a glass of wine. We might have one glass, or two, or maybe the bottle. It’s our way of coping because we feel stressed. My vice is smoking and I hate it. I have cut down and I’m focused on giving up but when I can’t cope, I reach for the packet.

What about substance misuse? Smoking marijuana to relax? Taking drugs at weekends to escape? Maybe the ability to cope has developed into addiction? Although the aforementioned are negative on the mind and body, they may be the only things that enable someone to function in day to day life.

I am sure we can relate to some of these examples because they are part of everyday life. Yet the thought of self-harming through cutting, inserting objects into the skin, burning, banging or hitting, skin picking or poisoning seems so foreign. The underlying reason for all is the same. We can’t cope and our self-harming behaviour is an expression of our stress.

I also want to confront the misconception that self-harm and suicide are similar. They are not. Self-harm is a coping strategy to stay alive whereas suicide is the intent to permanently end a life. However, regular self-harming can increase a person’s risk of suicide.

Next page: sharing my story. 

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