Tips For Supporting A Loved One Struggling With Self Harm

In support of Self Harm Awareness Month, we are happy to present this guest post from Valerie Schauf, who runs the blog More Than Skin Deep offering tips for those of you who know someone who is self harming and are unsure of how to help. Having recovered from the personal journey of self harm herself, Valerie is very understanding of what sort of support self harmers need.

I want to give a huge shout out to Inspired Advocates for inviting me to write a guest blog, as well as for their support for my blog, More Than Skin Deep. It is a huge privilege for me to be able to partner up with them in help spreading the word about self harm awareness, which is an issue that is near and dear to my heart.

When I was in my late teens I began down the slippery slope of self harming. It quickly progressed into a horrible coping skill and I found myself harming myself several times a day. I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder. I went to therapy, as well as a psychiatrist. I went on and off trying to stop self harming, I would stop for a few months and then fall back into it. My studies at college suffered, I had a hard time dealing with anxiety during class. I was in a constant state of flux, emotionally up and down, and I believed the only thing that could regulate my emotions was by cutting or burning myself.

I had to work hard to overcome the addiction to self harm, I had to try new things, I had to give myself grace, I had to be okay with opening up to others and sharing my struggles with them. But I was willing, I was desperate to live, I was desperate to have a life that I looked forward to living, and it was worth it. It was worth the sweat, the tears, the sleepless nights, I am here and I’m alive, it was worth it.

I have often had people ask me what tips I would give to family members or friends of those who engage in self harm. I have seen the desperation in their faces, the pleadings in their eyes, the hurt of their heart that they cannot just reach out and pull their loved ones from the addictive behavior. I would like to start off with a disclaimer that I feel is a forgotten word of caution and advice when it comes to the topic of self harm, or really any addiction for that matter. Not everyone is the same, what works for one individual may trigger another, what is calming and soothing for one person may be incredibly irritating for the person next to them. Please keep this in mind as you may try to help someone who is dealing with self harm, as well as this, until that loved one is willing and ready to change, they aren’t going to. It won’t matter how many times you plead with them, or how many times you cry, or how often you remind them that they may have scars for the rest of their life…they are not going to change until they are ready to. This is a hard one to swallow. I have mentored young women who have self harmed, struggled with eating disorders, and been suicidal. I know how hard it is to watch someone who is young and has the promise of a full life ahead of them, seemingly waste it away. I understand it is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do, to sit beside your loved one and be there for them, and love them, when they aren’t ready or willing to change their behaviors.

Words of advice:

  • Be there for your loved one. If they want to talk about what is going on, listen to them. Don’t judge, don’t offer advice unless they ask for it. I know this hard, but the power of a listening ear can do more wonders than you might imagine!
  • Be able and willing to talk with them about other things that are going on in their lives, not just their behavior. Don’t let label them a “cutter” or a “self injurer”. They are human, just like you. Don’t label. There is so much more to their life than their behavior.
  • Decide the level of involvement you want to play in their lives, but be sure to set healthy boundaries. For example, if you are okay with them calling you, at any hours of the night, then great; if you aren’t though, be sure to communicate that with them.
  • Love them. Call them. Drop them a note in the mail. Offer to meet with them for coffee or lunch once a week, or once a month. Encourage them to talk about their lives, their dreams, their hopes for the future.
  • Be patient with them. You may not be able to understand what they are going through, or why they are engaging in self harm; but a listening ear goes a long way. Don’t be shocked or startled by their admissions of how many times they self injure, or how deeply they’ve injured themselves.
  • Offer support, ask them what you could do to help them. Now you may not be able to give them what they want, or they might simply say to get out of their business. However the best thing you could do is honor their requests to the best of your ability. That being said, if you believe their life is imminent danger then you need to be calling a helpline, a family member, a Doctor, etc to get help for them.
  • If they are open and willing to get help, offer to help them find a therapist, or a treatment center. Ask if they would be willing to try medication to see if it could help them. Even just offer to drive them to their appointment, or if they would like for you to be along for support. A lot of the time the answer is probably going to be no, and that’s okay. The important thing is that they know you are there for them, and that you want to support them. However regardless of which way their answer leans, it’s very important that you are respectful of that, even if you don’t agree with it.

(If the individual is a minor, then as a parent/guardian there will be times where you have to be the one to make the choice of whether therapy, medication, treatment will be sought out. I would strongly encourage you that if they are going to therapy/counseling that you honor their preference to sit in on it with them or to not sit with them).

  • One last piece of advice if your loved one has visible scars or if you see someone who has scars on their body, please do not stare, just ask if you are curious. I have had conversations where the focus has been on arms, instead of my eyes. It is absolutely awful. If you have questions, just ask. They will let you know if they aren’t comfortable talking about it. What was most awful for me, was when people noticed my scars, stared at them and then talked about it behind my back but never to my face. I realize it’s an uncomfortable topic, but years removed from when I self harmed and still having people do this to me to this day, I know the effect it has on those who have self harmed.

As an encouragement to you who are watching someone you love struggle with self harm, take a moment to breathe, and realize you are not responsible for changing them, or their behavior. You can be a support and be there for them, and help them in whatever way possible, but you can’t change them. Let that fall from your shoulders and your mind, and you will better be able to support them in this time.

Have hope! ~Val