Self-harm is really a broad term for many acts which cause personal harm whether deliberate or not. It can incorporate a wide spectrum of self abusive patterns. These can range from failure to give attention to one’s own emotional or physical needs, right through to the more direct forms of self-mutilation, burning or injury through taking toxic substances. Self-harm can also include eating distress and certain addictive behaviours.
Little is known about self mutilation, a frightening yet common act of abuse. Often called “attention seeking” and “manipulative”, it could be better described as the expression of an inner scream.
Self-inflicted injury involving cutting, burning, scratching or gouging could be viewed as a symbolic way of expressing deep distress, a non-verbal form of communication in which the feelings are externalised through the body where they can be dealt with in a more visible way. Yet because of its very visibility, self-injury is often treated with mistrust and fear.
No accurate statistics are available about the numbers of people who self-harm since few people are willing to admit to having caused their injuries themselves. Staff feel helpless when faced with self inflicted wounds and this may cause them to blame, rather than support, the person involved. When time and resources are limited and no one really knows how best to help, it’s easier to make judgements and use labels than to spend time looking for possible causes of distress.
Taken in part from the Mind ‘understanding’ series of publications