There are a wide range of reasons why people turn to self-harm and every single case is different but when I talk to young people about why they self-harm, there are certain themes that recur time and time again. I’ve chosen some quotes from young people who’ve shared their stories with me to illustrate some of the most common ones in order to help you understand some of the reasons young people turn to this unhealthy coping mechanism.
During adolescence, a time when young people are keen to assert their independence, they can begin to feel very out of control of their own lives. This can be for a number of reasons, perhaps their life is in chaos with difficult relationships at home or school, or perhaps they feel like they’re being told what to do every minute of the day and don’t have the freedom they’d like from parents or teachers. When you can’t control anything else in your life, you can completely control your own body.
“I know it’s a really negative kind of control but when your whole life is complete S**t you take what you can, Y’know? And as I burnt myself I would feel in control for a while. I guess I was on self-destruct and that was bad but at least it was me driving this.”
“The day I realised that nobody could take control of my body but me, I felt really powerful. In the past I’d been weak and other people had controlled my body but now it’s mine. I can care for it if I want to care for it and I can hurt it I want to hurt it. It’s MINE.”
“I’m 16. Every day of my life I’ve been told what to do from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep. I’m sick of it. This is just my secret way of asserting a bit of control in my life.”
Release and Communication of Feelings
For people who struggle to communicate or express their feelings in another way, self-harm can feel like the only way to communicate and release those feelings.
“I’m not good with words. I’m good at cutting. When there are more cuts it means I need more help.”
“Sometimes I’d have so many different feelings inside me I thought I was going to explode. Then I’d cut myself and I’d instantly feel a bit better, like releasing a valve.”
“It gave me a buzz. Like a drug. It didn’t last long and soon I’d be back to square one, but for a few blissful moments I’d be free from all my problems.”
Physical Rather Than Emotional Pain
For some people, physical pain can be a way of communicating emotional pain which is too hard to talk about. Or it can provide a more manageable form of pain that they can tend to rather than facing up to the emotional and psychological injuries they may be suffering with e.g. as a result of abuse.
“I was proper f****d up and I didn’t know how to make it go away, but some days I felt like maybe I could physically cut away the pain.”
“It was a physical expression of the emotional pain I was feeling but couldn’t begin to explain.”
“Cutting was something I could talk about and ask for support with unlike the other things that were going on.”
Some people talk about using self-harm as a way of punishing themselves when they don’t live up to expectations – this tends to either be young people who are perfectionist in nature, or those with a history of systematic abuse who have learned that they deserve to be punished.
“If I didn’t do as well as I’d hoped I would then I’d take a load of pills and go to sleep. It made me numb. Kind of like a mini coma. It was the only way I could stop thinking about how I’d let myself down.”
“I was always punished as a kid. If I was late, if I did something stupid, if I didn’t do well enough at school. My Dad used to punish me physically. Once I went into care I guess I kind of took over the punishment myself. People would tell me that it was okay to make mistakes and I shouldn’t punish myself but it made me feel better.”
Nowhere else to turn
Some young people talk about not being aware of a better way to deal with their problems.
“Some people drink, some people take drugs, some people paint pictures, I burn myself. It’s not really that big a deal, it’s just the way I deal with things.”
“It’s the only thing that makes me feel better. Nothing else I’ve tried gets through.”
Beginning to understand some of the reasons that young people harm themselves is an important first step to being able to offer meaningful support. If you would like extra help on this topic, Pooky can run a workshop for students, parents or teachers at your school or organisation. There is more information here or you can fill out an enquiry form or email Pooky – firstname.lastname@example.org. There is also excellent help and advice available via the selfharm.co.uk website.