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Advice for Carers and Friends of People who Self-harm

If someone you love and care about is self-harming, it can be very difficult to cope with your own feelings of shock, anger, guilt, grief, and helplessness. You may be afraid of what might happen. Although it is important not to break someone’s confidence, you also may need to get some help or advice. You could talk to a trusted friend or relative, or a professional, for support.

Although you may feel helpless, what you do, or don’t do, can make a lot of difference. If you pay attention to self-harmers' injuries, you affirm that they and their bodies are worth caring about. But don’t just focus on the injuries. It is important that you try to appreciate how difficult your friend or relative is finding life. Showing this person that you want to understand will matter a great deal.

You can begin by gently encouraging a self-harmer to examine his or her feelings and to talk to someone about why he or she self-harms. You may find what he or she says things which are difficult to hear. If you find this overwhelming, help the self-harmer to find someone else to talk to. Allowing the person to talk about how he or she feels is the most important thing you can do for a victim of self-harm. Just feeling that someone is listening and that they are finally being heard can really help those who self-harm.

Good listening is a skill – always let a person finish what he or she is saying, and while you listen, try not to think about the next thing you are going to say.

Don’t expect change to happen quickly. Don’t hold onto any expectations that your friend or relative can stop self-harming just because you want it to stop. It is important not to ask a person who self-harms to promise not to do it again; It may well happen again; the person who self-harms then feels guilty about breaking that promise. It takes time for people who self-harm to learn that their feelings won’t destroy them, and learn better ways of dealing with their emotions. It is important you resist the temptation to constantly step in and try to solve the problem. In the end, individuals must draw upon their own strengths, and find their own resources, to cope with emotional pain.

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