Learning that a friend is self-harming by seeing wounds, scars or bruises can be quite shocking and may trigger strong feelings. These kinds of reactions can make the situation even worse and it’s important to keep them under control. You may need to take some time to process what you have just learned before talking to your friend. Understanding that self-harm is way to cope with distressing feelings and experiences is important to supporting a friend.
A response that makes a person feel bad or guilty is only going to worsen their distress.
Some tips to think about before you have a conversation with your friend:
- Set up a time to talk. Let them know that you’d like to talk with them about something you feel is important.
- Have the conversation somewhere private and quiet.
- It’s very common for people who self-harm to deny and explain away their injuries or scars.
- They may be very scared to have anyone know. If your friend does not want to talk it, respect their decision and change the topic.
- Remind them how much you care for them.
- Encourage them to come to you if they do want to talk.
- See your friend for their capabilities and strengths.
- If they choose to disclose, honour their courage and strength it takes to talk about it.
- Be nonjudgmental and compassionate – understand that self-harm is something that works for them to relieve their distress.
- Let them know that any questions you ask are so you can better understand their self-harm and that you are not judging them.
- Don’t automatically assume you know why your friend is self-harming. Let them tell you.
- Focus on what they’re feeling and the events that lead to self-harm acts - not the physical results of the self-harm.
- Telling a person they should just stop is not helpful. They probably can’t at this point and if they sense strong disapproval, they will likely become more secretive.
- Try to get a sense of whether they would like to stop self-harming. Respect that they may not be ready for change and talk about ways they can limit damage from the self-harm.
- If they would like to get help, offer to go with them to see a counsellor (or someone else they choose).
- Recognize that you can provide only certain kinds of support and can’t fix their problem.
- Talk with a counsellor about self-harm to help you better understand (you don’t have to disclose your friend’s name.)
- Seek help for yourself if you are feeling overwhelmed.
- You need to tell an adult if your friend is in danger of seriously harming themselves or attempting suicide.
We can help each other bear the weight of our life challenges if we're brave enough to listen and brave enough to start conversations that matter.
1Stephen Lewis is a researcher with lived experience. Video