A problem shared: My friend is self-harming

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Something troubling you? Share it with your new BFs, Jo Davison and Molly Lynch.

I’ve just found out one of my closest friends self harms and I don’t know what to do. She hasn’t told me personally that she is doing it, but I saw the cuts on her arm by accident.

If it wasn’t for the neatness of them, and the quantity, I would have shrugged it off as the cuts being caused accidentally. I don’t think she knows what I saw. She definitely hasn’t mentioned it and is behaving the same way she always does. She is a bubbly person, always up for a laugh and she comes across like she doesn’t ever let anything get her down, so you can imagine my surprise. She seemed like the last person to be doing this.

I’m not sure if I should confront her about it. I’m not the sort of person to get angry at somebody. And it is her choice what she does with her body, I just wish she would get help if she is feeling depressed. But how am I meant to start a conversation as serious as that? Should I talk to her at home or in a quiet public place?

I don’t want her to feel like I’m pressuring her into telling me everything. If she wants to talk, I’ll be there for her but if she doesn’t, that’s fine too. After all, she must be feeling really upset to feel like this is a ‘good’ option. But I think there are better ways to deal with whatever she is feeling. I thought it would be a good idea to research some places she could go for help, however, I worry it might make her think of it as an intervention, which is what I want to avoid. I really am worried about her, this is completely out of character.

Jo says:

You sound like a very caring person, someone sensitive to other people’s feelings. You know in your own mind that, no matter how bubbly and confident your friend appears to be, your suspicions are correct and there’s something going on in her head.

And all credit to you; even though you are extremely concerned, you’re not rushing to make a drama of it, or push her into an embarrassing confession. You’re treading carefully and I reckon the experts would say you’re doing pretty well so far and are just the sort of person who may be able to help your friend.

But you are aware you are taking on a responsibilty and you are understandably worried about how to start a conversation about such a difficult subject with her. You talk about fearing a confrontation. My advice, on what is an extremely tricky subject that I have never had experience of, is not to even think of approaching it that way.

At this stage you don’t need to get some sort of confession out of her. Instead, try to help her to open up and feel safe enough to talk about her feelings and reveal what it is that is troubling her.

Something definitely is, or she wouldn’t feel the need to cut her arms. Self-harm is a way of expressing distress. It’s been described as an inner scream. Psychologists believe people may self-harm as a way of getting their pain out, or of being distracted from it. They think it can also be a means of self-punishment or an attempt to gain some control over life.

It isn’t the action of an attention-seeker, as some people seem to think; rather, the opposite. People who do it - usually young women - keep it a secret because they are ashamed of what they are doing and worried what people will think if they found out. Often, they don’t actually know why they do it. They just find it’s easier to cope with their life again afterwards - but only for a short while. The very fact that self-harmers end up with so many cuts - or bruises, even burns - is evidence of how soon the feeling of calm wears off and the problems resurface.

What you can give your friend is another way of releasing the emotions and pressures she finds hard to deal with. Eventually, she may find the courage to admit to what she is doing - and ask for help to stop. In the meantime, you need support in dealing with this. It’s a big weight to take on. Ask your doctor, or search the internet, about self-harming and what professional help is available to her when she’s ready. There are lots of organisations and groups set up to help who will also be able to support and guide you.

Molly says:

Stacey Hallam, 20, a student from Sheffield advises:

Talk to her now before it gets worse. From personal experience, I’d say you have to be kind, considerate and really listen to what she has to say. It’s obvious she is upset and feels what she’s doing is something to be ashamed of, so be sensitive and don’t force her to tell you anything she isn’t comfortable with. When you do talk, let her know you’re there for her if and when she needs it. It’ll be hard, but you can do this. A professional can advise her more, so look into what’s available.