How can I help a friend who is self-harming?

A young woman shares her experience of supporting loved ones who self-harm.

Friends and relationshipsMental health and wellbeing
By Parent Zone ·
images: oneinchpunch/stock.adobe.com

Elizabeth (not her real name)

Young author

”It’s hard to grasp the idea that someone you love would want to harm themselves“

Self-harm is not something I have ever personally struggled with. It’s important I make that clear, as I could never pretend to understand the intense pain and suffering someone must be experiencing when they self-harm.

Instead, I want to share my experience of watching friends suffer with this silent disease and how I have tried, whilst not always succeeding, to support them in their moments of need.

I remember the first time I saw self-harm scars on a close friend at school: I was about 14 and honestly didn’t know what they were. But I knew something wasn’t right, as my friend was insistent on wearing long sleeves even though it was summer.

Not knowing how to approach her myself, I confided in another friend and together we went to talk to a medical professional at our school. Though we were able to do this anonymously, we were still terrified of our friend being angry at us. I definitely felt guilt about going behind my friend’s back, but I remember feeling that I had no other choice and that I had to do it in order to help them.

It’s really hard to grasp the idea that someone you love would want to harm themselves, but it can be even harder for them to open up about it. As I’ve got older and have had more friends suffer with it, I’ve learned that it is a huge privilege to be opened up to and I take it very seriously.

Having said this, it can also be a huge burden and as I am not a mental health professional, I definitely struggle to find the right words to show my support and understanding.

In the past, I’ve found myself saying ‘Just call me when you are feeling down’ or ‘Try to go outside and take some exercise’, which are both much easier said than done when someone is deep in their own dark thoughts.

It certainly shows a lack of understanding on my part to think that someone can just pick up the phone and talk about it in their darkest moments. I have tried to develop my response to be more mindful and to make it clear that I am there to listen, judgement free, and show them that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, rather than trying to ‘fix’ the problem.

One of my close friends gets very angry and disappointed with themselves after they self-harm, especially if they have managed a long stint without doing it. It feels like they find it harder to open up about the subject afterwards, even though we’ve had conversations about it before. I feel my heart sink when I receive a message informing me it has happened again, as it often comes at a moment when they appear to be doing really well in their lives.

Self-harm wounds can be very jarring to someone who hasn’t experienced them before, and your reaction is very important in gaining the trust of the friend who has shown them to you. My heart broke the first time my best friend at university showed me their scars, but I was honoured they felt comfortable enough to show me something so personal. I couldn’t find the right words to say, so I gave them a huge and long hug to show my support.

Clearly, professional guidance is important in a situation where someone is self-harming and I’ve found there are ways to guide friends towards these options without seeming forceful or judgemental. I offered to accompany one friend to our university counsellor, as they were scared to go alone. I’ve also found that introducing them to useful websites and online support communities can be beneficial, as they can then decide if they want to take the next step.