Reacting to self harm

A tweet recently asked what one thing people would like to change about the way society reacts to and perceives self harm. The answers to this question were mainly related to the medical profession and the treatment of self harmers. 

Helen and Hazel sat down to have a chat about this topic and how the perceptions of society as a whole may be subconsciously influencing some of this treatment from professionals.

If you could change one thing about how society reacts to self-harm, what would it be?

When a person discloses about self-harming behaviours it feels like there are 2 common reactions;

  • to either hugely over-react and essentially panic, 
  • or to under react and to almost dismiss the issue as “a phase” or “attention seeking”. 

The former can scare or guilt the individual into not disclosing again in the future, and the latter can make a person feel unheard and belittled. 

Note: Telling someone just to stop is not helpful, self harm is a coping tool and before they can stop self harming, they need to build new coping mechanisms.

Why is attention bad?

If we assume that the stereotype of attention seeking has some truth to it, and someone is going to the extent of harming themselves for attention then surely there is an issue there? When did “attention” become such a bad thing anyway? It is a human need after all, and in many cases the act of self-harm is a desperate attempt to communicate something that the person can’t explain any other way. 

This “attention seeking” idea can also have the effect of people gaslighting their-selves, and invalidating their own pain. This in turn can prevent a person from ever seeking help, instead internalising things and beating themselves up, leading to shame and secrecy. This can occur even if no-one has said it directly as the concept is so prevalent within society.

It shames people for simply having a need!

On the other hand there are also many people out there who never disclose, who hide their behaviours and the injuries so well that no one ever knows. Even if a small part of them really wished people would notice and help, there is just too much fear. 

Initial reactions

Neither Helen nor Hazel could think of a helpful initial reaction, but they could think of times were a person has being ok about it all after they got over the initial shock and were able to process what they had been told. Both found that they got the most useful reactions from others who had experience of self harm. Possibly because these people have experienced the bad reactions themselves and so know what not to do, but also because a fellow self-harmer is more likely to look for the reasons behind the behaviour rather than to get bogged down in the behaviour itself – once they’d checked no medical attention is required of course. 

As such peer groups, forums, and people with experience are often a very important source of support. Contrary to popular belief, people do not often start self-harming just because their friends do it, it is not contagious, and making the topic a taboo or not allowing people with similar experiences to socialise is unlikely to be helpful in the long run. 

How should someone react?

If someone discloses to you, it is important that you do not panic, get angry or have any knee-jerk reactions. Don’t focus too much on the physical damage, beyond checking that no medical attention is required. Otherwise it becomes all about the injury and the underlying issue may get neglected.

It is important not to press the person, just to let them know that you are there to listen to whatever they feel ready to say.

Also if you don’t know much about self-harm or mental health please don’t rely on the stereotypes, go and do some research, educate yourself. Be honest if you don’t know much, but explain that you will try to listen in an non-judgmental way. Ask open questions, don’t just ask if they are “ok”, you need to show that you are willing to talk about the big issues and to signal that to the person who may be feeling very nervous or even frightened about what they are trying to say. 

One good way to support someone, and to have a non-pressurised talk, is to invite them out to do activities with you. Then, if you can, bring up the topic during the activity. Many people find this much easier than a serious sit down talk, and also it can reassure them that you still see them as a person, want to spend time with them, and that you are not being a burden on them. 


  • Mind have information about self harm, including possible causes, how you can get support and guidance for friends and family.
  • Harmless work to address and overcome issues related to self-harm and suicide.
  • LifeSigns provide information about self harm and are user led. Whilst they never tell anyone to stop, they do support people and guide them towards new ways of coping, when they are ready.

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