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Karyl T. Powell-Booth | Self-harm on the brink of suicide

Published:Wednesday | September 11, 2019 | 12:00 AM
Karyl T. Powell-Booth

Every 40 seconds someone dies by suicide globally. Yesterday, September 10, was commemorated as World Suicide Prevention Day. The focus usually is on completed suicides and suicide attempts, but it’s important that we understand a related and growing phenomenon, that of self-harm.

Self-harm refers to any behaviour people knowingly do to themselves to cause hurt or injury without the intention to die. Some persons say that this is a physical way of coping with psychological or emotional pain that they find brings them some relief.

Some find these acts as empowering and the only means of being in control of situations which they may find to be overwhelming or distressing. The situations may occur as a result of problems at home, such as exposure to violence, trauma, bullying, loss of a loved one, coming to terms with sexuality, difficulties in relationships, or mental-health issues such as anxiety and depression.

Persons who self-harm may be of any age group. However, it is a behaviour that usually begins during adolescence. It is estimated that approximately 10 per cent of young people engage in some form of self-harm at least once during their lifetime. Local trends also indicate an increase in its incidence.

For some, this behaviour disappears during adulthood, but for others, it may remain throughout their lifetime. Self-harm is linked to a higher risk of suicide. However, most persons who self-harm do not want to end their lives. There is the myth that persons who self-harm are merely ‘seeking attention’. Instead, they want to end their pain. It is a cry for help.

Symptoms may include:

- Unexplained cuts, bruises or cigarette burns, usually on wrists, arms, thighs or chest.

- Keeping themselves covered inappropriately, e.g., in hot weather wearing long sleeves.

- Expressing a wish to punish themselves or end it all.

- Becoming withdrawn and avoiding interacting with others.

- Low self-esteem.

- Pulling out their hair deliberately.

- Low or depressed mood, tearfulness, or a lack of motivation or interest in anything.

- Aggressive behaviour.

- Anxiety.

- Refusal to eat.

- Other unexplained injuries.

What to do if you suspect that someone has self-harmed?

Ask. It is a myth that if you ask someone if they are considering or have ever self-harmed, this will put ideas in their heads. To the contrary, the evidence suggests that people who may be contemplating self-harm, when asked, find it useful to talk about it and decide not to engage in that behaviour.

Remove the means. If the person uses implements for cutting or over-the counter medication for example, ensure that these are removed from their environment as far as is possible.

Have frequent contact. Call or message the individual frequently during the daytime and encourage them to engage with you in a conversation, whether via telephone, face to face, or via text messages.

Provide a safe, non-threatening environment. Listen to them, empathise and simply try to provide as much social support for them as possible by being there for them. It is critical that we not be judgemental of them or shun them, as this will only make the situation worse. The best we can do for them is to show that we care, and that they are loved. Many persons can’t relate to this behaviour and say very hurtful things to or about such persons. This is unhelpful.

Seek help from a trained professional. There are numerous persons and institutions that can provide varying levels of help for individuals in emotional distress. Among these are medical doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, teachers, guidance counsellors, pastors, trusted friends, adults, co-workers, peer counsellors.

Choose Life International provides counselling and may be contacted at (876)920-7924; or RISE Life Management Services at (876)967-3777.

Karyl T. Powell-Booth is a lecturer at the University of Technology, Jamaica; doctoral candidate focusing on suicide and self-harm in Jamaica at the University of Glasgow; and research fellow at None In Three Research Centre, Jamaica. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and powellboothkaryl@gmail.com; or tweet @kapow7000.