Self-harm in the community

By Merlyn Taylor

It’s Self-Injury Awareness Day, and we want to highlight the importance of local community groups who support sufferers. Together we can help raise awareness of this hidden facet of mental illness.

What is self-injury and what drives people to do it?

Self-injury, or self-harm, is when an individual deliberately inflicts pain and/or damage to themselves, either through physical punishment or consuming harmful substances. Mostly these actions are non-life threatening and often on parts of the body that are easily covered. Common examples include cutting, scratching, burning and manually-induced vomiting.

The reason why people feel compelled to self-harm are complex, but often are associated with emotional turmoil, low self-esteem and feelings of guilt.  Such behaviour is normally linked to poor mental health combined with extreme anxiety or stress. Sufferers often don't feel in control of their lives and use the pain as something to focus on at times of heightened distress.

We support an organisation called SurvivorsUK (opens in a new window), who work with men who’ve been victims of sexual abuse. Here they tell us how self-harm can become a way of coping with traumatic events:

Within [our community] we often see self-harm as a desperate bid to survive…[It] can give a jolt of feeling to a person who has learned to deaden themselves to the overwhelming pain of their abuse and to everything else; the pain of self-inflicted harm, under their control, serving to remind them that they are still alive. Conversely, the physical pain of self-harm can divert unbearable psychological pain into the more manageable, and visible, realm of the physical.
Katherine Cox, Supervisor, Counsellor & Groupwork Coordinator, Survivors UK

While people who self-harm are generally not suicidal, the chance of someone committing suicide who self-harms is greater than those who don't.

How big an issue is it?

As many people who self-harm do so in secret it’s difficult to know the full size of the problem. Overall it’s estimated that 3.8% of the population self-harm (Time to Change - opens in a new window). Many of these are adults, especially those who are asylum seekers, victims of abuse and individuals from the LGBT community (Royal College of Psychiatry – opens in a new window). Also people who suffer from mental ill health also use self-injury as a way to cope with their illness. Anxiety and stress bring people to feel they have lost control of their ability to focus on one thing. The act of self-injury allows suffers to regain control and focus on one challenge at a time.

‘Self-injury has an immediate effect – it slows my mind, calms me down, my breathing regulates and my heart slows down. I am then able to deal with things again, and regain some control, for a while at least.’ (LifeSigns – opens in a new window)

Mary Hamilton, of the Guardian (opens in a new window)

recently wrote about herbattle with self-harm: 

[It’s] a counter-intuitive act of self-care; repeatedly, when I tried to stop, the underlying depression became so unbearable that suicide seemed the only option. One psychologist told me that if they could bottle and sell the emotional assistance offered by self-injury, it would be one of the most effective anti-anxiety medications ever invented.
Mary Hamilton

Along with this relief, there is a sense of shame. The feeling of being unable to cope; guilt of how your friends and family may react; the permanence of the scars. These thoughts vary a great deal and depend upon an individual’s background, beliefs and values. They will also influence whether the individual decides to talk to someone and whether they will do it again.

Self-injury in ethnic minority groups

The common perception is that it’s mostly adolescents who self-harm, but as previously highlighted many adults use self-harm as a means to cope with anxiety and stress. 

Research shows that self-injury is most common with black women and least common with Asian men. There appear to be many factors that determine why one group of people are more likely to self-harm than others. For instance research shows that marital status can influence women who are South Asian but that it does not for women who are White British.  An individual’s ethnic background plays a key role in services understanding how to support poor mental health sufferers.

These complexities make developing a health service that works for everyone difficult. A study into self-harm and ethnicity by the University of Birmingham (opens in a new window) expressed that due to the diversity of factors that lead people to self-harm, ‘ethnic background must be taken into consideration when treating individuals’.  It went on to suggest that care should be offered in ‘community settings without stigma…such as those integrated to mosques, churches and barbershops’. 

A community response

Many of the groups we work with are set-up with their communities in mind. They understand the diverse factors, such as cultural expectations, that influence an individual’s mental wellbeing. These groups are often run by people who have lived experience of self-harm and are therefore more easily trusted by other self-harming individuals.

Self-harm remains a hidden issue within UK Society and the more easily available the help, the easier it is for suffers to find the support they need. 

If you need to talk to someone about self-harm, then check for local support via LifeSigns (opens in a new window), or contact the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90.