It can be hard to know what to say when someone you care for is hurting themselves.
The most important thing is to be there for someone, and to listen. Don’t be scared to make mistakes; the thing people normally need the most is emotional connection.
You may have spotted someone’s self-harm rather than them telling you about it. The person you’re talking to could be feeling really vulnerable, with feelings of guilt, shame and isolation.
Here are some tips for having that first conversation
- Stay calm. You might feel angry that someone you care about is hurting their own body, but reacting with anger can shut the conversation down. That person you care about needs your kindness right now.
- Acknowledge their emotions. Self-harm is a sign of serious emotional distress. You can ask open questions about their feelings. These can be as simple as ‘How are you feeling?’ or ‘What are you feeling?’. Remember, this is about them expressing their emotions. You might feel you need to urgently understand why they are doing it, but it’s usually best to give them time and space to talk in their own words.
- Show care and concern. Focusing on people’s emotional distress can help people feel cared for and heard. We know that caring relationships are key to helping people who self-harm.
- Be non-judgmental. There is a lot of stigma around self-harm. People can feel really apologetic and embarrassed, which can add to their distress and make them less likely to speak about it. Let the person in your life know they don’t need to be apologetic or say sorry to you. You are there to listen and support them to find a way through.
If you are unsure on how to start the conversation, we have some suggestions on how to help someone open up about their feelings, including tips on how to become a better listener.
Supporting someone in the longer term
Here are some tips on how you can give ongoing support to someone in your life who is self-harming.
- You don’t need to have all the answers. People often don’t want you to solve their problems when they open up. They want someone who can be understanding and won’t be judgemental. You might not feel like you’re doing enough by just listening, but it’s the most important thing you can do.
- Remind people of coping strategies. In times of heightened emotional distress, people can get caught up in the present. It can help to gently remind someone what’s worked in the past and how it might help now.
- Have patience. People who have self-harmed have told us that it helps when supporters don’t expect them to stop self-harm immediately and permanently. Recognise it could take some time for them to feel better.
- Help them access further support. It can be really hard to reach out to support from a GP (usually the first port of call for getting help from the NHS with mental health), or other local sources of support. You can give them a helping hand, for example by offering to be there with them when they make a phone call, or to go along to their appointment with them. Of course, if you’re supporting a child as a parent or a teacher then your role in ensuring they get the support they need from their GP and/or school is particularly important and this process will be more hands-on.
For parents and careers, additional guidance from Oxford University is available.
Accessing support for people who self-harm