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Reaching Out to Loved Ones Who Self-Injure

Each year in the United States, around 2 million cases of self-injury are reported. However, this number is likely lower than the actual rate of self-injury because sufferers often keep their habit a secret.

As a loved one, friend, partner, coworker, or trusted adult, you can become educated on self-injury and be prepared to have the tough conversations that may just save a life.

What to do

If you believe someone is self-injuring, it’s important to educate yourself on the matter and approach them with compassion and empathy. Here are a few ways to show you care:

  • Talk about it – You’ve asked about the cuts and scratches, but they’ve just changed the subject. Try again. Establish that you’re not judging their situation or behavior and that you want to help if possible. If they still won’t talk about it, remind them the offer stands when they’re ready.
  • Acknowledge their pain – If the person participating in self-injury is ready to discuss their feelings, acknowledge and empathize with what they share. Reinforce their story with phrases like, “Your feelings must overwhelm you sometimes,” and “You’ve been through a lot—no wonder you hurt.” 
  • Provide resources – Recommend they visit a qualified mental health professional while reinforcing that there is nothing wrong with asking for help. If you believe they are in immediate danger or may be escalating from self-injury to suicidal actions, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevent Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

What not to do

Even with the best intentions, there are wrong ways to approach a conversation about self-injurious behaviors. Try to avoid these common missteps: 

  • Don’t interject your perspective – Avoid statements such as, “But you have such a great life,” or “Things aren’t that bad.” While it may be your point-of-view, remember that your opinion doesn’t fix their perceived pain. 
  • Don’t deliver an ultimatum – The best thing you can do is accept and support your loved one without judgment. Try to avoid issuing deadlines or ultimatums that simply add more pressure and emotional distress. 
  • Don’t reinforce the behavior – To some, self-injury represents strength or rebellion. Dispel this idea and don’t reward the dramatics with too much attention. Instead, reinforce their worth and promise your support during their journey to healing.

Next steps

Providing judgment-free support is the best way to help someone suffering through self-injurious behaviors. Stay educated on the topic, remind them you’re available when they’re ready to talk, and make sure to prioritize your own mental health during this journey.

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