Self-harm: Why teens do it and what can be done to help

Advice for young people and their parents from CPFT medical director Dr Chess Denman

Self-harm: Why teens do it and what can be done to help
07 January 2015

About 10 per cent of teenagers will self-harm, Dr Chess Denman, Medical Director at Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust (CPFT), explains why youngsters do it and what can be done to help them

I guess that most people who think about the idea that cutting their body might feel helpful would be baffled or somewhat disgusted by the thought. However the urge to hurt one self is actually quite a common one.

About 10 per cent of young people will self harm at some point in their adolescence. Often they try it only once or twice and then give up. However some people this wish grows into a bigger thing and they find themselves using self harm often in response to difficult situations or feelings and on a much more regular basis.

We know that people give quite a lot of different reasons why they hurt themselves. Some people feel that they need to be punished, some feel dead inside and use pain to make them feel more awake and alive, for others it feels as though self harm keeps them in control in some way.

Lots of people say that they self harm when they feel upset or confused because it helps them to feel calm again. We think that, probably what all these people are doing is using the body’s natural response to pain and injury as a way of changing their mood.

When the body is hurt it responds by producing adrenaline which helps to get it ready to respond to threats and to deal with pain and also chemicals called endorphins which make pain less severe and produce a feeling of calm. Some people also believe that another form of self harm which is picking at wounds or rubbing, worrying at and scratching skin may, weirdly, be linked to behaviours that are seen in monkeys and are called grooming.

What ever the reason for the self harm there are two very important things to know about it. First if you know someone who self harms then they are not doing it to get attention (most self harm is kept secret) and they are definitely doing it because they feel bad and trapped and because, how ever odd it might seem to you, it makes them feel just a bit better.

Second, if you are someone who feels like self harming then the important thing to know is that although it might work in the short term, in the longer term self harm is a very bad idea. It is a bad idea because it weakens your body and makes it less ready to cope with stressful things and it is a bad idea because although it may help in the short term there is a serious risk that like using drugs it will become and addiction and in the long term drag you down.

So, what should people who self harm do and how can their friends help them? The first thing is safety. If you have self harmed recently or are worried about cuts or wounds then you should see a doctor.

The second thing is deciding to stop. Giving up the urge to self harm involves getting rid of things you might use to harm yourself and also involves telling other people about the temptation and getting them to help you keep your resolve not to go back to it.

Another good thing to do is to find other sorts of activities which distract you and which help you change your black mood for the better in a less destructive way. Exercise, music, going for a walk, talking to a friend or seeing a film, are all good ways.

The third thing is support and help for the troubles that made you feel so bad that you wanted to self harm this can be professional help or help from friends and family.

Above all this is the message: don’t just accept it. Treat your body with respect and look after it – it’s the only one you’ve got.

This column first appeared in the Cambridge News on October 17, 2014

Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust
Elizabeth House, Fulbourn Hospital
Cambridge, CB21 5EF

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