How to Help Your Loved One Who Self-Harms - Handel Behavioral Health
Mental Health Blog

How to Help Your Loved One Who Self-Harms

March 23, 2023

Amy Mauro

When someone you care about reveals to you, or you discover that they are hurting themselves intentionally, it can be incredibly difficult to hear. 

While your instinct might be to react with fear, anger, and even hurt, it’s necessary to approach your loved one with compassion and without judgment. Blaming or punishing your loved one will only worsen their ability to cope with distressing emotions. 

With empathy and patience guiding your intervention, progress and healing can remain possible. 

If your loved ones reveal that they are engaging in self-harm behavior, or you discover that they are self-harming, it’s important for you to understand what self-harm is, and why your loved one is participating in self-harm. 

Your understanding will show your loved one that you care about their wellbeing, and can help you spark the conversation about their mental health. 

If you’re concerned about your loved one’s safety and want to tell a healthcare professional, tell your loved one that you are planning to share your concerns before you do. If you need support for self-harm, please contact us today at (413) 343-4357 to speak to one of our mental health professionals.

If you’re concerned that your loved one is in immediate danger, seek emergency medical help immediately. 

In this blog you will learn more about what self harm is, and how to support someone who engages in self-harm behavior, according to our mental health professionals at HBH.

What is self-harm?

Self-harm, also known as self-injury, is an explicit form of self-inflicted pain. 

Alexandra Malin, LMHC and Clinical Supervisor with HBH, explains that while many people think of self-harm as immediate physical injury, it’s inclusive of any behavior of harming yourself on purpose. This can include:

  • Spending an excessive amount of money that you don’t have
  • Intentionally putting yourself in a potentially dangerous social situation
  • Intentionally going against your core beliefs to cause yourself pain
  • Cutting yourself
  • Burning your skin
  • Poisoning yourself
  • Overeating or under-eating
  • Exercising excessively
  • Biting yourself
  • Picking at existing wounds
  • Carving symbols or words into your skin 
  • Inserting objects into your body
  • Misusing alcohol, prescription, or recreational drugs 
  • Pulling out your hair
  • Hitting or punching oneself

Why would my loved one self-harm?

Alexandra Malin, LMHC explains that self-harm typically develops as a maladaptive coping mechanism to deal with difficult emotions, memories, or overwhelming experiences. 

Some people self-harm when they experience intense feelings of anxiety, sadness, and worthlessness. Others self-harm because they believe that they deserve some form of self-punishment, or to inflict pain on themselves because they’ve identified something as problematic. 

Alexandra explains that most people who self-harm desire to experience a greater feeling of intensity when they’re emotionally numb. The truth is that the underlying emotional pain will still remain, and feelings of guilt and shame might follow after the act of self-harming.

While self-harm is not a mental illness, it’s more prevalent among people who live with mental health conditions including: 

Learning new ways to cope with difficult emotions is necessary to break the cycle of self-harm in the long term. The longer a person waits to seek support, the more likely they are to adapt to these behaviors as their normal way of coping.

How can I help my loved one who engages in self-harm behavior?

Whether someone tells you directly, or you suspect that someone is harming themselves, there are ways that you can help them feel supported: 

  1. Be a listening ear 

Carol Dupre, LICSW with HBH says that it’s important for loved ones to be a non-judgmental listening ear to someone who engages in self-harm behavior. 

It can be incredibly validating if you express your concern that they might be struggling, and listen to your loved one with compassion and without judgment. Pay close attention to what is being said, and be particularly alert to whether your loved one is expressing feelings of distress or unable to cope with their emotions. 

Remember that you don’t need to have all the answers, and the person you’re caring for doesn’t necessarily want you to solve their problems. They want to be understood and listened to without judgment. 

A judgmental response that incorrectly addresses the behavior as “attention-seeking,” or “just a phase” can make your loved one feel more hopeless, burdensome, and worthless. 

Communicate your availability and remind your loved one that you care about them. Even if they are not ready to open up, knowing that you are there to listen can contribute to their healing. 

  1. Express your concern

If you think your loved one is self-harming, Amanda Jacques, MA suggests using compassionate and direct language to express your concern. Don’t wait to step in for fear of upsetting your loved one or straining your relationship. 

Your loved one might be angry with you for addressing your concern, but ultimately they appreciate your help and love you no matter what. 

Amanda says that when you do intervene, present your concerns in private, not for public exposure. Ask your loved one if there is anything you can do to help them:

“Is there anything I can do for you? I love you and I’m here for you no matter what.”

“I’m concerned this might be happening and I want to understand you. I’m not going to judge you.” 

“I’ve noticed that you’ve been feeling really down on yourself. Is there anything I can do to help you?”

When you ask direct questions, with compassion and without judgment, you spark the start of a wider conversation about mental health. This can only validate your loved one and make them feel safer in your relationship. 

  1. Engage in creativity 

Andrea Bushman, LADC I with HBH says that creating art can help people express their internal thoughts and release their emotions. 

As a close friend or loved one of someone who is engaging in self-harm behavior, help them dive into a creative outlet. 

Journaling, painting, cooking, dancing, or making music can help people express their emotions and thoughts without inflicting pain on themselves. The creative process can also help people break down negative beliefs about themselves, and dismantle internally stored pain. 

The physical act of creating can also help people develop a stronger sense of ownership, purpose, and control over what might seem like uncontrollable situations.

A mental health professional can also help your loved one engage in art therapy. This can expand your loved one’s toolbox of coping strategies from maladaptive behaviors to activities that are safe and supportive. 

  1. Help your loved one access professional support

Alexandra Malin, LMHC recommends encouraging your loved one to seek therapy for self-harm.

You can encourage them that speaking with a therapist provides a confidential and nonjudgmental space to identify and work through these maladaptive behaviors.

Offer to help your loved one find a mental health counselor who specializes in self-harm/self-injurious behavior, and who is trauma-informed. Offer to help them make a phone call and schedule an appointment.  

Ultimately, it is your loved one’s decision about when to seek professional support, but in times of heightened emotional distress, it can help to encourage them to seek support. The earlier any help is accessed, the better the outcome.

Seek emergency medical help if the person you’re concerned about is in immediate danger, or concerned about their safety in any way.

How to Help Yourself While Helping Someone Else

Supporting someone who engages in self-harm behavior can be a long process with many ups and downs. 

It’s natural to feel overwhelmed by the severity of the situation, and scared about the possibility of your loved one seriously hurting themselves. 

With that being said, it’s essential that you look after your own mental health and wellbeing. 

Seek support from one of our mental health professionals at HBH to share your concerns, and maintain your own health and happiness.

We serve the entire Massachusetts community with our offices in Amherst, Franklin, West Springfield, and Wilbraham Massachusetts. We also offer online teletherapy services to accommodate your schedule and preferences. 

If your loved one is struggling with self-harm, contact us today at (413) 343-4357 and begin your healing journey.

About The Author

Nettie Hoagland Headshot

Nettie Hoagland is a writer with experience in local news reporting, nonprofit communications, and community development. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in Media Studies, Journalism, and Digital Arts from Saint Michael’s College in Vermont. Nettie believes in the healing power of the arts to create connection and community. She is passionate about using writing as an instrument for personal and social growth in the field of mental health. She is currently based in Brooklyn, NY.

Amanda Jacques, MEd, LMHC Headshot

Amanda Jacques, MEd, LMHC uses play and talk therapy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is her primary modality but she also like to incorporate play, art and mindfulness therapies into her work. She believes everyone is an individual with things that are uniquely them and those things should be the focus to help each individual shine to their very brightest potential.

Alexandra  Malin Headshot

Alexandra has been a practitioner in the field for 16 years.  She has a Masters of Art in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Lesley University and is licensed as a Mental Health Counselor in the state of Massachusetts. She has had the pleasure of training masters and doctoral level clinicians and interns and truly loves teaching others about mental health. More About Author →

Andrea  Bushman Headshot

Andrea obtained her Master’s Degree in Social Work at Westfield State University. Presently, she is a Doctoral Candidate in the Social Work Program at Simmons University. She has twenty years of experience working with diverse populations of children, adults, and families on mental health disorders, substance use, and alcohol addictions. More About Author →

Carol Dupre Headshot

Carol is a graduate of Westfield State University. Her clinical experience has included working for a community clinic doing In Home Therapy and Outpatient therapy. She enjoys working with clients of all ages. She is trauma-informed and many experiences including advocacy/support of foster youth, in a teen parenting programming and providing hospice support. She has previously advocated for those who experienced food insecurity and currently More About Author →