SH 4: Responding to people who harm themselves

Welcome to this mini blog series on self-harm. It’s by no means intended to cover all aspects of self-harm and the support that can be offered to those who use this particular coping strategy rather than any other. It is intended to dispel just a few of the more common myths surrounding people who self-harm and to provide some very basic pointers for those who work with them.

The mini-series covers:

  1. Socially acceptable self-harm
  2. Clinically significant self-harm
  3. Self-harm as a response to trauma
  4. Responding to people who harm themselves

Responding to people who harm themselves

Working with people who hurt themselves can be a confusing and bewildering experience. It is often extremely frustrating and distressing for the staff who may well be at a loss to understand why their resident keeps on injuring themselves. Traditional views about ‘manipulation’ or a ‘cry for help’ may bring some limited sense of explanation but they do little or nothing to help prevent future self-harm. This article explores some alternative notions about self-harm and examines ways that workers can make a difference in a genuinely difficult situation.

First of all bear in mind that you are not alone. No single person can do everything. Whilst self-harm does not necessarily lead to suicide these things do happen and it’s always a good idea to liaise with other, specialist professionals. A decent GP, Psychiatrist or community psychiatric nurse will be worth their weight in gold. It is important that you and the resident, together with input from other professionals, perform a thorough risk assessment. Agree how to manage future problems and when to seek outside or emergency help.

All that aside though, there is much that workers can do on their own.

A resident’s ability to manage is greatly enhanced by good support from their surroundings and social group. In supported housing this means that the staff can influence significantly the resident’s coping skills.

Back in the 1950s George Brown began studying the effects of families and social groups on coping and mental health. This research led to the concept of ‘High Expressed Emotion’. A few decades later in the USA Marsha Linehan came up with the concept of the ‘Invalidating Environment’. Both these concepts outline the ways in which certain types of interaction increase stress, reduce coping and lead to the conditions which encourage psychological and behavioural problems including self-harm.

These include:

High Expressed Emotion

  • Aggression and hostility
  • Criticism
  • Emotional over-involvement

The Invalidating Environment

  • Erratic, inappropriate responses from significant others to the individual’s thoughts, beliefs and emotions.
  • Oversimplifying the ease with which problems can be solved.
  • Blaming the individual for not solving difficulties with ease.
  • A chronic and classical ‘double bind’ scenario in which the individual cannot ‘win’ whatever he or she does.

It clearly would be inappropriate for all workers to undertake full-scale psychotherapy. However, attention to the concepts of expressed emotion and the invalidating environment is appropriate for us all to take on board and can make a huge difference. Remember that befriending is an extremely effective method of supporting people, with or without external therapy.

I hope that by now as we reach the end of this series it is clear that self -harm is likely to represent a coping strategy. For many people it is the only effective strategy they know. Often in training sessions I use the analogy of a small child in a sweet shop. They can have anything they want but there’s a problem. The lights are turned off and all they have is a small ‘pen’ torch – the kind with a very narrow beam that only illuminates a small are of the shop.

Whatever they can see in the torchlight they can have but it’s a very limited choice because most of the sweets on display are in darkness. They’re effectively invisible. Clearly the child will choose from very limited options – not because the other sweets aren’t available but because he doesn’t know about them.

In one sense this is what it’s like for people with limited coping skills. The other coping strategies are available to them but they don’t know about them or they don’t believe that they will work. The coping strategies are the sweets in the shop in other words and your job is to turn the lights on.

Don’t waste time attacking the only coping strategy the service-user knows. That is unlikely to succeed and, quite frankly you wouldn’t want it to. If you remove the only coping skill a person has then they may see no alternative but suicide. It is no coincidence that service-users who harm themselves are around 50 times more likely than the general population to kill themselves.

“About 3 in 100 people who self-harm over 15 years will actually kill themselves. This is more than 50 times the rate for people who don’t self-harm. The risk increases with age, and is much greater for men.”

Royal College of Psychiatrists leaflet: ‘Self Harm’

Instead acknowledge the benefits of self-harm as discussed earlier and then work on discovering and experimenting with other, less injurious methods of dealing with stress. It may well be that to begin with this will amount to nothing more than some slightly less injurious methods of self harming but this is a step in the right direction. Build upon what you can and remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Overt criticism of the service-user is likely to create a barrier

between you that may never come down again.

The chart below outlines some of the things support workers can do to support people who self-harm and suggests responses to likely situations.

SH Do and Dont

You can download a PDF version of the whole four post series here Self Harm mini series by The Care Guy

SH 3: Self-harm as a response to trauma

Welcome to this mini blog series on self-harm. It’s by no means intended to cover all aspects of self-harm and the support that can be offered to those who use this particular coping strategy rather than any other. It is intended to dispel just a few of the more common myths surrounding people who self-harm and to provide some very basic pointers for those who work with them.

The mini-series covers:

  1. Socially acceptable self-harm
  2. Clinically significant self-harm
  3. Self-harm as a response to trauma
  4. Responding to people who harm themselves

Self-harm as a response to trauma

Before we go any further let’s acknowledge the thing we’ve been neglecting throughout this series. Some people harm themselves to get a response from others. However they are not the majority. In fact, most people who harm themselves for the benefit of others or to get a reaction of some kind tend not to repeat the experience very often – or their self-harm is very superficial. If you want attention there are many less harmful behaviours that will achieve the same result without the pain. Shouting and stamping your feet or undressing in public for example. There are many ways to get a response without resorting to overdosing or extinguishing cigarettes on your skin.

Contrary to popular belief, self-harm is not usually an attempt to manipulate others. Nor is it usually a ‘cry for help’. Most people are quite able to ask for help without self-harming and the secrecy that often accompanies self-harm demonstrates that something else is going on.

Many people, particularly many of those diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or Borderline Personality Disorder experience emotions in a particular way. When under pressure they may find it impossible to make sense of what they feel. It’s as though they experience all emotions at the same time but no single emotion in particular. This, understandably enough, is difficult to bear.

One way to ‘reset’ the emotional balance is through physical pain. Self-harm prompts the brain to produce endorphins, a kind of natural opiate, which overcomes the motional turmoil and allows the person to feel better. So when a distressed person self-harms it’s entirely possible that they’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed. It doesn’t matter how stressful others believe their situation to be. Different people have different coping abilities and what may be no problem at all for one person might well overwhelm another.

The key to understanding this process is by looking a little (and only a little) at the body’s response to trauma. The endorphins mentioned above are very similair in effect to opiates such as heroin although the effect may be milder. The result is a state of euphoria (a pleasant, almost dreamy state) that overturns the dysthymia. That’s why in an earlier post I (very briefly) likened the effects of self -harm to the effects of illicit drug use and why it may not be quite so valid to think of addiction and self harm as very different processes.

Incidentally the same endorphins are produced when the body is subject to other types of stressors such as over exertion and this explains why some people become psychologically addicted to exercise. It’s not the purpose of this series to explore eating disorders in any detail but it is significant that the exercise regimes that people diagnosed with anorexia nervosa often employ carry the same endorphin-related response. There is also a very real statistical correlation between the diagnoses of Borderline Personality Disorder and Anorexia with many people receiving both diagnoses at the same time. Of course there’s a ‘chicken and egg’ argument here as there is with all the personality disorder diagnoses but it’s interesting none the less.

Many people who self-harm do so during a state of dissociation. This isn’t so surprising given what we know about dissociation already and the link to overwhelming emotional trauma. The adult who learned to dissociate from trauma as a child will do so when stressed. They dissociate away from the dysthymia but they still need to ‘reset the balance’ as we outlined earlier. So dissociation and self-harm often go hand in hand.

This provides a stereotypical pattern (although not everyone follows it) that goes something like this:

  1. Distress
  2. Dissociation
  3. Self-Harm
  4. Euphoria

I know of several people who cannot remember the act of self-harm at all. This is because they have dissociated away from the trauma before they harm themselves. Only when the ensuing euphoria wears off do they notice the self-inflicted wounds and realise what they have done. This is why the NICE guidelines make the distinction that not all self-harm is deliberate. It is difficult to say that an act is purposeful when the individual is in a dissociative state at the time.

In Dialectic Behaviour Therapy one of the key skills is ‘mindfulness’. This is a technique specifically taught to help people to ‘remain present’ and not dissociate away from their situation. It’s a simple technique in theory involving people taking note of the minute details of their surroundings and consciously cataloguing them in their minds. I describe it as simple in theory because in practice it takes a fair amount of training to develop the skill – the pull to dissociate is so strong. The point here is that more often than not self-harm is a response to trauma and stress. It’s ironic then that the judgemental attitudes of some care workers actually recreate the emotional turmoil (that the service-user has just dealt with) by reacting in overly hostile or critical ways to the only coping strategy the self-harmer knows.

Extreme criticism simply recreates the invalidating environment

that may well have caused the problem in the first place.

There is a more appropriate and more helpful way to respond to people who self harm and that will be the focus of the next post.

You can download a PDF version of the whole four post series here Self Harm mini series by The Care Guy

SH 2: Clinically significant Self Harm

Welcome to this mini blog series on self-harm. It’s by no means intended to cover all aspects of self-harm and the support that can be offered to those who use this particular coping strategy rather than any other. It is intended to dispel just a few of the more common myths surrounding people who self-harm and to provide some very basic pointers for those who work with them.

The mini-series covers:

  1. Socially acceptable self-harm
  2. Clinically significant self-harm
  3. Self-harm as a response to trauma
  4. Responding to people who harm themselves

Clinically significant Self Harm

As we have seen some forms of self-harm are more socially acceptable than others. The specific delineation between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ changes as society evolves. A topical example of the way that society’s tolerances change relates to smoking. Twenty years ago this form of self-harm was completely acceptable. Today society has a rather uneasy relationship with the habit. It may be that in just a few more decades it will be just as socially unacceptable as opium use is today – a state of affairs that would have been very hard for our Victorian forebears to understand.

For today though Self Harm is generally considered to mean physical injury or ingestion of substances, prescribed or otherwise, that harm the person.

According to the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE)(2004) self-harm means:

“self-poisoning or self-injury, irrespective of the apparent purpose of the act”.

The words ‘irrespective of the apparent purpose of the act’ seem reasonable in that the body doesn’t know how many tablets are supposed to be harmful and so whatever the reason for taking 20 sleeping tablets, even if you just want a good night’s sleep, the harm is real and should be taken seriously by clinicians.

Unfortunately the NICE guidelines go on to confuse the issue and the document appears to contradict itself a few sentences later:

“The guideline focuses on those acts of self-harm that are an expression of personal distress and where the person directly intends to injure him/herself. It is important also to acknowledge that for some people, especially those who have been abused as children, acts of self-harm occur seemingly out of the person’s control or even awareness, during ‘trance-like’, or dissociative, states. It therefore uses the term ‘self-harm’ rather than ‘self harm’.”

This seems to be an attempt to get past the problems with definition, acceptability and unacceptability we outlined earlier. The statement is contradictory because society’s attitude is contradictory and the closer we look at self-harm the more we see the double standard.

Still, at least the guidelines do acknowledge that self harm is often a response to distress

The most common reasons given were ‘to get relief from a terrible state of mind’ followed by ‘to die’, although there were differences between those cutting themselves and those taking overdoses. About half the young people decided to harm themselves in the hour before doing so, and many did not attend hospital or tell anyone else. Just over half those who had harmed themselves during the previous year reported more than one episode over their lifetime.”

Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry

Volume 49 Issue 6, Pages 667 – 677

Published Online: 10 Mar 2008

Journal compilation © 2008 ACAMH

Some people who self-harm will describe the urge, the impulse to harm themselves as though it was an addiction. I don’t want to get too deeply into a discussion of addiction as a reason for self-harm here because that will only cloud an already confused issue of definition. All I will say is that there is an assumption that addiction to a chemical is treated differently from self-harm even though in many cases the actual chemical effect of causing physical trauma is directly comparable to the effects of illicit substance use.

It has been said that the main problem associated with Self-harm is not the physical damage itself so much as the stigma that surrounds it. Personally I don’t think that this is true – at least not in every case but there is certainly a major issue with stigma and the attitudes of some workers toward people who harm themselves.

Much of the stigma comes from the many myths and misconceptions that abound among professionals and the public alike about the reasons behind Self Harm. I remember as a student nurse in the early 1990s being fed these same myths by nursing and medical staff. The failure to see past our own perceived importance as professional ‘experts’ was rife and it led to some extremely damaging and cruel approaches to people who harm themselves. Let’s look at some of the more common misconceptions.

Perhaps one of the most common myths is to do with the notion of the ‘cry for help’. The idea is that by cutting or otherwise injuring themselves clients are trying to get some sort of assistance from services. If this is true then as professionals working in the field we need to ask ourselves some very difficult questions such as……

  • Do these people really not know how to ask for help?
  • If not – why not?
  • What sort of help can I offer them that is worth self-mutilation in order to achieve it?
  • Am I really that special?
  • How good am I at noticing people’s distress if they need to resort to self-harm to get my attention?
  • What’s wrong with our access policies?
  • How good are my listening skills?
  • How ‘accessible’ am I if people can’t just talk to me and ask for what they want?
  • What does this say about me as a professional and as a person?

Another myth is that self harm is an attempt to manipulate or emotionally blackmail professionals.

  • Do we really believe ourselves to be so important that people will mutilate themselves just to influence our thoughts, feelings and behaviours?
  • Is self-harm really all about us as professionals or is it more to do with the personal needs of the client?

Then there is the good old ‘attention seeking’ myth. It doesn’t take a genius to work out how inaccurate such an assumption is likely to be when we understand that the vast majority of self-harm is done secretly and in private.

“Since many acts of self-harm do not come to the attention of healthcare services, hospital attendance rates do not reflect the true scale of the problem.”

Self Harm

The British Psychological Society

& The Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2004

What we do know is that the incidence of clinically significant Self Harm is rising in UK.

“Although the prevalence statistics are not as reliable as one would like, there is no disputing the fact that self-harm has increased markedly in the UK in recent years. Indeed the rate of self-harm in the UK is amongst the highest in Europe”

The Psychologist

Vol.18 – Part 7 – July 2005

Although there is an undoubted ‘crossover’ population of people with a diagnosis of Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder (especially EUPD: ‘Borderline type) who also engage in Self Harm, we also know that it is unhelpful to assume the diagnosis. It is even more unhelpful to focus upon diagnosis rather than the actual, lived problems that the human being before us is experiencing. Problems exist irrespective of diagnostic labels and psychiatric classifications.

“Certain psychological characteristics are more common among the group of people who self-harm, including impulsivity, poor problem-solving and hopelessness. Also, people who self-harm more often have interpersonal difficulties. It is possible to apply diagnostic criteria to these characteristics. This explains why nearly one-half of those who present to an emergency department meet criteria for having a personality disorder. However, there are problems with doing this because:

  • There is an unhelpful circularity in that self-harm is considered to be one of the defining features of both borderline and histrionic personality disorder.
  • The diagnostic label tends to divert attention from helping the person to overcome their problems and can even lead to the person being denied help (National Institute for Mental Health in England, 2003).
  • Some people who self-harm consider the term personality disorder to be offensive and to create a stereotype that can lead to damaging stigmatisation by care workers.”

Self Harm

The British Psychological Society

& The Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2004

Ironically it seems that this trend of increasing self-harm might actually be the result of society’s angst over the issue. One interesting theory about the rise of self-harm, particularly among the young is that by raising awareness and normalising the behaviour well-meaning campaigns are creating an environment that encourages it:

“In my view, as long as self-injury is discussed as a common and legitimate expression of distress amongst students and young people, and as long as the behaviour is normalised and publicised through awareness initiatives, people will increasingly turn to this very behaviour as a way of communicating and relieving their discomfort. We must therefore seek to question the necessity for, and challenge the usefulness of, such campaigns, and ultimately ask

‘Is awareness making us ill?’ ”

Crowley R.

The Psychologist

Volume 20 – Part 5

May 2007

Whether we agree with Crowley (above) or not it is clear that talking about self-harm doesn’t really change anything. If we accept that the task of mental health and social care workers is to encourage the development of new coping strategies then endless discussion about existing strategies serves no practical purpose. We need to focus upon finding alternatives, upon exploring the new, not upon revisiting the old.

You can download a PDF version of the whole four post series here Self Harm mini series by The Care Guy

SH1: Socially acceptable self-harm

Welcome to this mini blog series on self-harm. It’s by no means intended to cover all aspects of self-harm and the support that can be offered to those who use this particular coping strategy rather than any other. It is intended to dispel just a few of the more common myths surrounding people who self-harm and to provide some very basic pointers for those who work with them.

The mini-series covers:

  1. Socially acceptable self-harm
  2. Clinically significant self-harm
  3. Self-harm as a response to trauma
  4. Responding to people who harm themselves

SH1: Socially acceptable self-harm

Look at the list of activities below. Give yourself one point for each behaviour you indulge in. Give yourself an additional point for each behaviour you indulge in when you’re stressed or under pressure:

acceptable SH chart

There’s no scoring matrix to match your score against and there are no deep psychological insights into your temperament and personality to follow. I simply want to make the point that these are all coping skills and they all have a couple of things in common:

  • They all are designed to make us feel better;
  • They all create their own problems and are in some way harmful to us.

Many of us respond to stress by doing things that damage us in the long term (or even the short term) but that briefly allow us to feel better or to forget our troubles for a while. Psychologists call these activities ‘safety behaviours’. They give the illusion of safety or security but tend to make things worse in the long term. They are a remarkably common aspect of human coping.

When we look at the more extreme forms of these self-damaging behaviours such as violence or over indulgence in intoxicating substances such as alcohol it is easy to see the folly. Yet these behaviours are just the extreme end of a continuum, a ‘sliding scale’ if you will of self injury with a cream cake at one end and a razor blade at the other.

Self-harm then is widespread throughout Western society as a coping strategy – a response to stress. Why then are some forms of self-injury, heavy drinking for example more acceptable than others such as self-mutilation?

Actually they’re not necessarily. For example in the ‘EMO’ culture among young people (I still want to call them ‘Goths’) self-harm through cutting for example is much more acceptable than aggression and violence.

“About 1 in 10 young people will self-harm at some point, but it can occur at any age. It is more common in young women than men. Gay and bisexual people seem to be more likely to self-harm.

Sometimes groups of young people self-harm together – having a friend who self-harms may increase your chances of doing it as well. Self-harm is more common in some subcultures – ‘goths’ seem to be particularly vulnerable.”

Royal College of Psychiatrists leaflet: ‘Self Harm’

However in the West Cumbrian, working culture of the 1970s in which I grew up the reverse was true. As a young man I would never have dreamed of taking a razor blade to my arm but I’d think nothing of settling my problems with my fists. I’m happy to say that I’ve since changed my attitude to violence but the point still stands. Every culture and sub-culture has its own acceptable forms of self-harm in response to stress although some of them are more ‘diagnosable’ than others.

Some groups actually use self-harm, and the scars associated with it as a kind of ‘badge of honour’. It’s as though self-harm has become the ‘price of admission’ and social acceptance just as the ability to hold your own in a fight or to drink more than the next man defines group identity in other circles. In the EMO culture I mentioned above self-inflicted wounds and scars can be thought of as evidence of emotional sensitivity and in that sense they are just as valid as the intricate scarification and body modification found in some isolated Amazonian tribes – not to mention the West coast of the United States.

However there are two significant problems with this rather liberal understanding of self-harm:

  • Like most mental health classifications self -harm can legitimately be considered from a wider cultural context and the majority of people in Western culture consider it to be inappropriate, at least in the more clinically defined versions of self harm;
  • Self-harm creates genuine injury and as such it is reasonable for clinicians and others to consider it a problem.

However the fact that you or I might consider self-harm to be a problem does not automatically mean that our service-users will agree. Any intervention that does not acknowledge the sub-cultural acceptability and even benefits of self-harm is likely to fail.

You can download a PDF version of the whole four post series here Self Harm mini series by The Care Guy

The mental health workers’ audio guide – now available

It’s been a while coming but The mental health workers’ audio guide is now available for purchase from The Care Guy shop for less than the price of a lunchtime sandwich. The first 4 of 6 parts are already available and the final two will be out soon. Scroll down to view the contents of each instalment.

You can The Guide parts 1-6 accompanying tables and references containing the contents list for all 6 parts, various diagrams and charts as well as references here……


Part one – clinical basics

What’s a mental health worker worth?

Three models of mental health and disorder

The biological (medical) model

The social model

Merging the two (stress and vulnerability)

The importance of physiology

The meaning of psychiatric diagnoses


The psychology of anxiety


The psychology of depression

Psychosis (introduction)


Delusions part 1

Delusions part 2

Thought disorders

Part 1

Part 2 – The dementias

The dementias

Types of dementia – Alzheimer’s

Types of dementia – Vascular

Types of dementia – Lewy Body

Types of dementia – Parkinson’s

Types of dementia – Korsakoff’s

Types of dementia – Fronto-temporal

Types of dementia – Mixed

Orientation and memory


The CAM scale

Working with the limbic system


Part 3 – Personality and recovery

Personality disorder

High Expressed Emotion

Sympathy is not usually helpful

More on the Stress & Vulnerability model of mental health and disorder

The invalidating environment

The Self-fulfilling prophecy

The meaning of recovery in mental health

The three types of recovery


Part 4 – In practice

Duty of care: A slug in a bottle

‘Hanged if you do, hanged if you don’t’ – a duty of care myth

There is no ‘us and them’

People are just people

Coping skills develop slowly

Lapse is different from relapse

Don’t expect your service user to perform perfectly.

The word ‘support’ is meaningless in and of itself

“It’s just behavioural” (A workers’ excuse for lazy thinking)

Challenging behaviour means….

Behaviours that harm the individual

Behaviours that harm other people

Do we need help?

Consequence, learned behaviour and the need for boundaries

Maintaining the problem

The whole team approach

Firm Boundaries

No ‘Pedestals’ and Staff Safety

Effective, Consistent Care

‘Corporate’ Identity – “You’re All The Same.”



Part 5 – risk issues


Self-harm as a response to trauma

Responding to a person who harms themselves

Individual v Organisational risk (Risk-free is impossible. Manageable risk is the way to go)

Don’t flap (more haste – less speed)

The saviour fantasy

You’re probably not an emergency service – don’t try to behave like one


Part 6 – Thinking styles

Unhelpful thinking

Ignoring the positive

Exaggerating the negative



Arbitrary inference


Selective abstraction

Global thinking

Dichotomous thinking

Magical thinking (the Wizard did it)


Socratic dialogue and ‘the razors’.

The sticks we use to beat ourselves

Who put us in charge?

Final words

I just love this stuff

Today I was in Halifax in beautiful W. Yorkshire. It was great.
I arrived last night and met up with a former colleague for a catch up over a curry (& beer of course).


Then today was spent with around 20 of Calderdale’s finest mental health & social care workers talking about psychosis and interventions for people who hear voices. It’s amazing what a really enthusiastic group can get through in a single day. We covered basic principles of psychosis, a little philosophy of mental health care, models of understanding and normalisation in the morning. This afternoon was devoted to meaningful activity and validation, socratic dialogue, delusions and perceptions and principles of risk. These people really got their money’s worth today!

The group was great fun to work with and they really seemed to enjoy the day. Hopefully they’ve got some useful new skills to take away too.
Even better, I think a few of them will be contributing to Care To Share Magazine before too long as well.

All in all it’s been a really successful day. And now it really must be ‘beer O’Clock’!

What a cracking day!

Care to share magazine issue 7

Just a reminder. Care to share magazine issue 7 is out today as a series of blog posts or downloadable PDF.

Get your free copy here.



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