Many think of self-harming as cutting, but it’s actually any act with a motive to hurt oneself. Some examples include teenagers who hold their breath until they pass out, smashing their fingertips with a hammer, scratching wounds so they won’t heal, burning their skin with lighters, swallowing poisonous substances – the list goes on.
Self-harm can also extend to reckless behaviour like dangerous driving, binge drinking and high risk stunts if the intention behind the act is to self-harm.
People define self-harm in lots of different ways. Usually self-harm is defined as someone deliberately hurting themselves without wanting to die. It is sometimes called deliberate self-injury or non-suicidal self-injury. Engaging in self-harm may not mean that someone wants to die. It is a behaviour that is used to cope with difficult or painful feelings.
Self-harm is relatively common. Research shows that about 1% of Australians have self-harmed within the last month and about 8% have self-harmed in their lifetime. Most people start self-harming as a teenager or young adult. It can continue for many years and become a habit that is difficult to stop.
Michelle Mitchell, a registered teacher, author and founder of Youth Excel, joined Neil Johnson on Vision Christian Radio’s 20Twenty program to discuss how parents can support their children through the emotions and situations that lead to self-harm.
“I think we need to look at intention with our kids. Destructive thinking leads to destructive behaviour. I think that staying connected to our kids and what they are thinking about themselves and how they are managing stresses are incredibly important.”
“Young people are experiencing big overwhelming emotions. For some of them, it’s the very first time they’ve felt overwhelmingly anxious or low or angry. Sometimes they’re not quite sure whether they’re going to get through these feelings, they’re not sure how to manage these feelings. When self-harm looks like a legitimate option, the choice can be to self-harm. Sometimes they can be self-harming without connecting the dots [as to why].”
“When a kid cuts themselves or does something to deliberately hurt themselves, not only does it shift the chemical state in their body but their focus then goes on the wound itself, and the emotions they were feeling tend to melt in the background. That’s why it works for them.”
“When families find out about it, they’re quite often ashamed or shocked. It’s not something we talk about a lot.”
“We have to be really conscious that this is much more common than we think it is. It’s often a strategy that young people pick up for a short period of time, and then can let go again quite quickly as well. During the teenage years, especially the middle school years, they’re much more susceptible to trying strategies like this.”
There is a strong link to mental health issues.
“Family is just massive. I think kids literally praise their parents for the help once they’ve gotten through a tough patch, for sticking by them and standing with them. The support and the love of a family, that unconditional backbone in their life, goes a long way.”
“Parents are their kids greatest advantage. What you add and what you do in that moment really does matter.”
Listen to the audio clip below to hear Michelle's full interview on 20Twenty, including questions from families and a call from a woman who has come out the other side of self-harming.