Helping teens who self-harm

“The first way to solve self-harm is for the mutilator to admit that they have a problem,” says Dr Juan Schrönen, a psychiatrist specialising in child and adolescent behaviour at the Panorama Medi-Clinic in Cape Town. He also says that suicide attempts should be taken very seriously, as 75% of people who commit suicide give some warning of their intentions.

One must never be afraid to ask for help. If the teen does not feel comfortable talking to a parent, they can speak to a school counsellor or get their parents to send them to a general practitioner who can refer them to the correct professional for treatment.

There are better ways of dealing with difficult emotions. Talking to parents (this is not always easy), learning to get some perspective on problems, and doing something constructive in one's spare time, are all good ways of reducing self-mutilating episodes.

Life in general is becoming more challenging and demanding for teenagers of today. Schrönen says teens need someone to talk to and understand what they are going through. These days, many parents are too busy to spend quality time with their children, as demands on them are also very high. Parents however should look out for signs of distress and find ways of talking to their children, in an attempt to find out what is wrong. “Self-harm should never be kept a secret. It is an indicator of a deeper underlying need,” according to Schrönen.

Once the initial pattern of self-mutilation has been overcome, many may still experience urges to abuse themselves. However, teens must first be aware of the specific situations or feelings that are likely to trigger the urge, and then try to follow the alternate ways of dealing with difficult emotions.

Experts have suggested the following alternatives:

  • Talk to a friend you can confide in to give you the correct guidance
  • Take a cold shower
  • Take the dog for a walk
  • Exercise on a regular basis (running, swimming, hiking)
  • Socialise in a safe, healthy environment

Helping a friend who cuts
If you discover that a friend is self-mutilating, you should try and understand why this is happening. It helps to be supportive. However, Shrönen stresses the importance of a teen being referred to a professional if self-mutilation is involved. Obtaining professional help does not mean the person is a weakling, but in fact, very brave. Therapists are trained to deal with such issues on a day-to-day basis and help teens to discover their talents and strengths.

Here are a few tips on helping a friend who cuts:

  • Talk about it, acknowledge, share, and try to understand what your friend is going through
  • Tell someone whom you can trust to give you the correct guidance
  • Find ways of helping your friend with their problems
  • When you feel you have created a feeling of trust with your friend, encourage them to see a professional
  • Never deliver an ultimatum, no matter what the situation might be

(Matthew Louw, Health24, October 2005)

Read more:
When teens harm themselves
Visit Health24’s Mind Zone

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