Self-Harm FAQ's for Professionals

Self-harm is a coping strategy which helps people to deal with distressing thoughts and emotions. Professionals who are supporting other people often have a lot of questions about self-harm. This resource covers some of the most frequently asked questions that we hear.

Stay calm and reassure them that you are there to listen. Try not to focus too much on the self-harm, but more on how they are feeling. Ask them how they were feeling before they self-harmed and how the self-harm may be helping. It can be helpful for both of you to understand the underlying emotions and reasons for self-harm, but this can take some time. Try not to rush trying to ‘get to the bottom of things’.

It can be very frustrating if the person you are supporting doesn’t want to speak to you about why they are self-harming. This can be particularly difficult if you feel that you have a good relationship with the person. Here are some tips for speaking to the person you are supporting in this situation:

  • Focus on building your relationship first. Building trust and a sense of safety will help the person you are supporting to feel more comfortable to open up.
  • Ask them about how things are going generally in their life and focus on how they are feeling.
  • Try and encourage the person you are supporting not to spend too much time on their own. Help them to identify people they can spend time with and find ways to encourage them to become more involved in groups or other activities. Keep in mind that they might still need space and time to themselves, so try to find a balance.
  • Try and have a conversation when you know you have time to talk, and find a space where you can have some privacy.
  • If the person you are supporting does start opening up about their concerns, it is important not to interrupt them and jump to conclusions. Listen to them and hear what they have to say.
  • They still may not want to speak to you. Remind them that you are there to talk if they change their mind in the future.
  • You could suggest that they write you an email or letter, or text or voice note you if they are finding it difficult to talk face-to-face. You could also suggest that they speak to another trusted member of staff or volunteer if they might find this easier.

It is natural to want to check in with the person you are supporting after having a conversation about self-harm. The person might want to keep the conversation going at another time, or they might not want to speak about it again. It is important when you are checking in with the person that you ask about how they are feeling and what is going on for them in their life, rather than focusing on their self-harm.

You might feel like you want to talk to someone else about the person you are supporting that is self-harming. This could be because you are worried about the person you are supporting, or to get support for your own wellbeing. It is important to remember confidentiality and its limits in this situation. Self-harm is very personal, and information about the person’s self-harm should only be shared on a need-to-know basis. It is also important to know the policies that your organisation has around reporting safeguarding issues. In some organisations, self-harm is required to be reported under Child Protection or Adult Support and Protection guidelines and policies, so it is important to check what your organisation’s views are on this.

In most cases, self-harm is a temporary response to distress. Most people will, over time, adopt new coping mechanisms or find themselves in new life circumstances where they no longer feel the need to self-harm.

Although some people who self-harm may have thoughts about suicide, this is not always the case. Self-harm tends to be a coping mechanism which may actually help prevent a person from contemplating suicide. A key distinction is that self-harm is often about experiencing and expressing feelings, whereas a suicide attempt is more often a desire to no longer experience feelings.

Supporting anyone with their mental health can be extremely difficult. Supporting someone who self-harms can be particularly stressful and can take a toll on our mental health and wellbeing. Our Looking After Yourself resource has some tips on how to take care of yourself, as well as some resources that you can use to support your own mental health and wellbeing.

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