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Ending the cycle of self-inflicted violence: what students should know about self-harming

How do you cope when you are feeling overwhelmed? Some people turn to exercise or deep breathing as a way of dealing with intense stress, some attempt to delegate, and some turn to others for support – but a significant portion of Canada’s young-adult population use self-harming as a way of dealing with problems. This week, we will explore this topic in-depth, discovering exactly what it is, why people do it, why it is damaging and what those who self-harm or their loved ones can do to help end routines of self-inflicted violence.

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By Sasha Moedt (The Cascade) – Email

Date Posted: October 15, 2011
Print Edition: October 12, 2011

How do you cope when you are feeling overwhelmed? Some people turn to exercise or deep breathing as a way of dealing with intense stress, some attempt to delegate, and some turn to others for support – but a significant portion of Canada’s young-adult population use self-harming as a way of dealing with problems. This week, we will explore this topic in-depth, discovering exactly what it is, why people do it, why it is damaging and what those who self-harm or their loved ones can do to help end routines of self-inflicted violence.

What is self-harming?
Self-harming is a complicated subject, with an array of connotations and falsities surrounding it. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), self-harming affects up to four per cent of the population, but for young adults this percentage rises to between 14 and 39 per cent.

Any way someone hurts themselves intentionally as a method of coping can be seen as self-harming; the behavior is not yet strictly defined. Self-harming has become a behavior that is commonly seen in youth.

Besides the fundamental concerns associated with the risks of injuring oneself, self-harming is unhealthy in that the act does not help to solve the issues that make a person want to hurt him/herself in the first place.

Why do people self-harm?
UFV counsellor Eileen Burkholder explained that for some, self harming is like crying. “The body can produce chemicals that make a person feel better and it can be a release of tension,” she said. “A person self-harms because it helps them – otherwise they wouldn’t do it. After self-harming, the person will probably feel better – at least for a little while.”

The specific reasons people self-harm can be varied and complex, but Burkholder explained that generally “People self-harm on purpose to help them deal with bad feelings or thoughts.”

“They don’t do it to end their life,” she noted, though self-harm and suicide can sometimes be correlated; a person chooses self-harm to cope with anxiety in the first place, and if the source of this anxiety is not dealt with and the problem escalates, the person may find themselves at a much higher risk.

The CMHA notes that some cases of self-harm involve mental disorders or deep trauma. It is used to cope, to punish, to regain control over pain – blurring the lines between the physical and emotional. Self-harming can temporarily rid those who do it of emptiness, of numbness, and distracts from grief and anger.

What are the long-term costs?
“Although self-harm can give temporary relief,” Burkholder said, “there is a price to pay: it causes far more problems than it solves. The relief is short-lived, and is quickly followed by other feelings like shame and guilt. Meanwhile, it keeps the person from learning more effective strategies for feeling better.”

Burkholder added that self-harming can become a habit, and that those who do it risk beginning to rely on it as a coping mechanism. “It may start off as an impulse or something a person does to feel more in control, but soon it feels like self-harming controls the person,” she explained. “It can turn into a compulsive behaviour that seems impossible to stop.”

An interview with a self-harming student
In a telephone interview, Jess, a 20-year-old University of Calgary student, described her own experiences with self-harming. “For me it was because of boredom,” she explained, “just sort of this constant pressure with everything that I was dealing with…Sometimes I feel dull and tired…I guess you could say it’s calming.”

Jess wasn’t certain how old she was when she began self-harming, speculating that it was possibly during middle school. She did, however, remember her first experience: “I remember finding…broken glass on the sidewalk behind our house, and I rubbed a shard against my wrist. It’s like, pinch me to see if it’s real – if it’s really that bad, and it is [really that bad], but the pinching helps.”

She explained that her anxiety doesn’t develop from school, but from strained relationships and past suffering. “Pressure is mounting at my age, and I feel sort of lost, sent away from the…structure of high school. But it’s more like family and boyfriends, stuff like that, and I’ve had family upsets when I was a kid,” she said.

Jess agreed that her tendency to self-harm is a coping method, but when asked if it had ever solved the problem she was trying to deal with, she laughed. “No, I guess not. Like, it feels better but it doesn’t solve the problem, other than getting people to talk to me when they see my wrists. I think that…as far as coping goes, cutting is the desperate attempt for me. At that point the problems aren’t going to be solved.”

Currently she has been seeing a counsellor on a regular basis. “People tell me to be open with my family and friends about cutting, but if I can’t be open with them about my problems then I’m not going talk to them about the…scars. It’s their…fault. Yeah, counselling helps for sure. But we’ve got some [issues] to work through.”

Has she cut herself lately? “No, not so much anymore.” But Jess has recently taken up smoking as an alternative way to help pacify herself.

“I don’t smoke a lot but I like it, it gives me some quiet time where I can just be alone, outside with a smoke, you know?”

When asked if she meant she wouldn’t cut herself while she was smoking, Jess replied that she wasn’t sure. “Depends on how things get… counselling is…helpful, someone to talk to and, I don’t know, organize the problems so they’re kind of out there. I don’t know.”

Some alternative outlets or coping techniques
To become more aware of reliance on self-harming, UFV counsellor Eileen Burkholder suggests identifying “your self-harm triggers. Notice what feelings make you want to hurt yourself. Sadness, anger, shame, loneliness, guilt, emptiness are common feelings which are triggers.”

When you realise these feelings that drive you to self-harm, get in touch with them. “Know what you are feeling and why. Emotions quickly come and go if you let them,” Burkholder explained. “If you don’t try to fight, judge or beat yourself up over the feeling, you’ll find that it soon fades, replaced by another emotion. It’s only when you obsess over the feeling that it persists.”

Self harming is an emotional outlet. If you are looking for ways to express yourself, draw, write, dance or talk to someone. Punch pillows, rip cloth or paper, crunch ice, scream, or run to let off steam. If you’re seeking strong physical sensations, hold a cube of ice in your hand, wax your legs, or chew on something really strong, like a hot pepper or garlic.

These outlets are substitutes for acts that are dangerous, and potentially life-threatening. Though people that self-harm might not mean to, they could hurt themselves badly. It’s easy to misjudge depth, or for a wound to become infected.

If a loved one is self-harming
When a loved one is closely involved with a self-harming person, they might forget the base cause of the self-harming – but is the result of something, and the root problem needs to be dealt with. Though it might be difficult and overwhelming, focus on the feelings and the situation behind the act, not the self-harming itself.

Tracy Alderman—Ph.D., clinical psychologist, and author of The Scarred Soul, a book that attempts to bring understanding to self-harming—says that, for those trying to help, it is most important to be available and supportive; she writes that “talking about self-inflicted violence is essential.” If someone close to you is hurting themselves, talking about it removes the secrecy and potential for shameful feelings around the act. Being there is important, even if you don’t really know what to say; “even by acknowledging that you want to talk, but you’re not sure how to proceed, you are opening the channels of communication.”

It should be understood that you cannot help unless they want you to. But in some cases, Alderman says, “people who hurt themselves have difficulty recognizing or stating their own needs.” Expressing themselves as they are, by hurting themselves, often is a sign of this. By offering a way in which you are willing to help, they know they can rely on you.

Though it may be hard, it is important not to discourage self injury. Alderman, who also blogs frequently for Psychology Today on the subject of intervention, says that “this may seem difficult and irrational, [but]…don’t discourage your friends or family from engaging in acts of self-inflicted violence. Rules, shoulds, shouldn’ts, dos and don’ts all limit us and place restrictions on our freedom. When we maintain the right to choose, our choices are much more powerful and effective.”

Recognise the severity and why your loved ones self-harm. Allow them to talk about their inner turmoil rather than express this turmoil through self-damaging methods. But don’t take it on yourself; assessment for underlying anxiety or depression issues might be necessary. Make sure your loved one knows about the local help-centers, resources and crisis lines.

Psychotherapy and Professional help
David Kealy, Mental Health Coordinator at Surrey Gateway Mental Health and Substance Use Centre, explained that there is no certain line defining self-harming as an act, posing the question: “is it a continuum kind of phenomena, or is self-harming like in the form of self-mutilation something distinct and separate from other forms of self-destructive behaviour?”

“I’d be inclined to look at a range of possible self-destructive behaviours,“ Kealy said. Though he affirmed that self-harming is indeed a way of coping with emotional distress, he explained that it manifests itself differently, and is difficult to identify precisely. “Say, how different is self-mutilation to engaging in violent types of behaviour? Ultimately they’re both self destructive, both a form of releasing intolerable emotion, and coping with that.”

As self-destructive behaviour, Kealy did not define self-harming as something that could become addictive. “You typically see craving [with addiction], and…I don’t know many patients who crave to harm themselves. It’s more done in a reaction to something.”

He noted that recovery is a “learning process,” and in cases of borderline personality disorder, other disorders, or deeply traumatic events that can trigger the desire to self harm, recovery “usually has to happen in some form of psychotherapy.” Kealy added that “there are particular forms of psychotherapy that have been validated by research and shown to be effective for this problem.”

“There are some types of psychotherapy that are more of a teaching and learning style, where the emphasis is on learning skills, how to regulate feelings. Then there are other forms of therapy that focus more on the underlying emotional issues that the patient might have difficulties with,” Kealy described, “the therapist’s task is to help the patient think about these emotional difficulties. Through this the patient can develop different ways of managing emotional distress, understand what the distress means to them – if it’s some kind of trauma that needs to be resolved.”

Help for self-harm
There are numerous resources available to anyone seeking help with self-harming, both on and off campus.

At UFV: confide in someone. If you are not sure where to turn, contact a UFV counsellor. If you are a student experiencing a personal crisis, contact Student Services and let them know it’s urgent. A UFV counsellor will help you immediately.

  • In Abbotsford, drop in to room B214 or call 604-854-4528 between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., Monday to Friday.
  • In Chilliwack, come to the E Building or call 604-795-2808 between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., Monday to Thursday and until 4:00 p.m. on Fridays.
  • After hours support: if you have a personal crisis after 4:30 p.m., contact the crisis line at 604-951-8855 or toll free 1-877-820-7444. This service is available 24 hours per day, every day.

In the community: there are a variety of options, whether you need to talk to someone or find information.

  • BC Crisis line. This is not only for crises, but for those who need to contact local help centers or are looking for someone to talk to. They are open 24 hours, with no wait or busy signal. The people who answer have advanced training in mental health issues. Contact the BC crisis line at 310-6789 (do not add 604, 778 or 250 before the number)
  • BC Suicide line: call 1-800-784-2433 for support.
  • Visit Healthlinkbc.ca online or phone 811
  • Interdisciplinary National Self Injury in Youth Network Canada (INSYNC). Visit them online at www.in sync-group.ca to learn more about self-harming; they offer information and links for family and friends as well as those who self-harm.

Resources are available in many different languages.

  • Kelty Resource Center. Visit them online or phone 1-800-665-1822 toll-free.
  • BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information. Visit them online for information, a discussion forum, personal stories and self-tests.

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