It isn’t easy to know what to say if you suspect or know that someone you love is self-harming. Trying to figure out how to help a friend who’s self-harming can often leave you feeling powerless and incapable. You likely feel many emotions, from shock to confusion, frustration to fear. When you find out someone you know struggles with self-harming behavior, what can you do to help?
What is Self-Harming Behavior?
Self-harming behavior is intentional self-inflicted injury without suicidal intent.1 Sometimes called non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI), self-harm encompasses a variety of behaviors. Some examples of self-injury include cutting, burning, picking at the skin, pulling out hair, or hitting themselves.
Self-harm alone is not a mental illness; it is usually a symptom of another condition, such as depression or bipolar disorder. It is often a response to feeling out of control and serves as a coping mechanism that provides a false sense of control. While self-harm alone is not indicative of suicidal ideation, it may progress into more serious behaviors when it goes unnoticed or is left untreated.
How to Help a Friend Who’s Self-Harming
Many people who self-harm do all they can to keep their self-harming behavior a secret. They usually don’t want people to know what is happening and don’t want to scare or hurt their family or friends. However, you may notice some signs of self-harm, such as unexplained bruises, cuts, or burns, unexplained blood on clothing or towels, or keeping themselves fully covered even in hot weather.2 Once you find out if they are, do you know how to help a friend who’s self-harming?
What Not to Say
Sometimes it’s easier to start with what not to say to a friend struggling with self-harming behavior. You must recognize their actions are not entirely controllable, so you can’t ask them, “Why don’t you just stop?” If stopping were that easy, they would have found another solution by now.
Never imply they are or accuse them of seeking attention. Most people who self-harm prefer to keep their behaviors to themselves and are reluctant to let their loved ones know. Threats are also an ineffective form of intervention; your loved one will only shut down or close off from you.
What to Say
Now focus on what you should say to help a friend who’s self-harming. Self-harm often causes severe guilt and shame, which leads to more self-harming behavior. The best approach is to carry yourself with calm, loving compassion and a willingness to listen without judgment. You want to let them know that you’re there for them and may want to ask how they would like to be supported.
The most important thing you can do to help a friend who’s self-harming is to encourage them to seek mental health treatment. Some people can end their self-harming behaviors without help or intervention, but others may need the safe and supportive environment that mental health treatment provides.
Lifeskills South Florida is a mental health treatment center that offers comprehensive, compassionate care. We understand the complexities that cause and come with self-harming behavior and are ready to help your loved one learn to overcome their behaviors and equip them with healthy, alternative coping mechanisms.
Are you ready to learn more about our programs and find out how we can provide the best care? Call us at 866-321-9430 or fill out our online contact form to be connected with an admissions specialist today.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2023). Self-harm.
- National Health Service. (2020). How to help someone else.