Do we actually know how to talk about self-harm?

  • July 1, 2019

Stories about self-harm are everywhere. One of the recurring features of these stories is that they include calls for more mental health services – especially for young people.  A few suggest that self-harm is something to which we should all be able to respond. For example, 3rd sector organisations such as Young Minds and Samaritans recommend being open to talking with people who self-harm – surely that’s right if up to a quarter of young people are affected.

There’s nothing wrong with this advice except that it doesn’t come with much help to guide people in what they should actually say.

Here for example is what BBC say at the bottom of a typical news item about self-harm:

What adults can do to help a child who is self-harming:

  • Show you understand
  • Talk it over
  • Discover the triggers
  • Build their confidence
  • Show you trust them
  • Choose who you tell carefully
  • Help them find new ways to cope

Difficult to disagree with, but how does it help a worried parent or friend who can’t show they understand because they don’t understand, or doesn’t know what “talk it over” means or how to “help them find new ways to cope”?

After a look around for sources specific advice, I decided that some direct simple and specific advice was needed and so I wrote my book Understanding and Responding to Self Harm, just published by Profile Books. The book offers practical suggestions:

  • For a person who self-harms [1] planning to disclose to friends or family [2] planning to talk to your GP [3] managing contact with a hospital emergency department [4] getting help from the mental health services
  • For a close friend or family [1] how to respond if you learn somebody you know is self-harming [2] what you can do that helps practically.

Allan House

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