'I struggle with chronic self-harm – here's what I want people to know about it'2023-03-01
Olivia Johnson, 24, describes her self-harm problem as ‘chronic’.
‘It started when I was around 13,’ she tells Metro.co.uk, ‘so it’s been going on for 11 years pretty much consistently.’
There have been times in her life when there have been ‘pauses’, but Olivia says self-harm is a hard habit to break – especially when you’ve been doing it since you were a child.
‘It’s something that I’ve always found myself going back to when things get more difficult,’ she adds.
Olivia struggles with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, which is where she says her impulse to self-harm stems from, and has previously been supported by CAMHS – the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services.
Now, she’s working with Samaritans and sharing her experience for Self-harm Awareness Day, in a bid to correct some of the misconceptions that exist around self-harm.
The stigma around self-harm means that many people still suffer in silence, says Katie Hardcastle, senior research manager at Samaritans.
‘This is very concerning as it means they might not get the support they need and self-harm can become a repeated behaviour,’ she says.
‘We can all help reduce the stigma around self-harm by showing non-judgemental support to someone we know is self-harming.’
Olivia was in and out of hospital throughout her teenage years and early twenties, and she spent two years living in NHS-funded residential placements designed for people who self-harm who were considered too high-risk to stay in their homes.
‘I’m not saying it was perfect,’ she tells us, ‘it also had its bad things, but I’ve been really lucky to have so much support as a teenager.’
Olivia, who now works for the NHS and in the voluntary care sector, says access to support ‘should be preventative, and it never really has been for me’.
When asked what she’d say to others going through struggles with self-harm, Olivia says looking for personal and professional support is really important.
‘Don’t struggle alone,’ she tells us. ‘It can feel like such a taboo thing even in this day and age, and people like to think that the stigma isn’t there.
‘But the stigma is still there, and sharing this with someone that you trust is a really, really important first step.’
If you don’t feel able to tell someone you know, Olivia also recommends anonymously reaching out to an organisation like Samaritans first.
She also says there are things you can do yourself to try and change your behaviour too.
‘Therapy helps, medication helps, but most of what’s helped me has been down to me – wanting to make a change and taking responsibility,’ she explains. ‘Knowing that these are my actions, and I’m in control even though often it can feel like I’m very out of control.’
There are loads of distraction tactics and coping mechanisms out there – from snapping a rubber band against your wrist to drawing red likes where you want to self-harm.
‘Sometimes those things help me, and sometimes they don’t,’ she explains. ‘For me, the biggest thing that really helps is postponing it.
‘I’ll say to myself, “If I still feel like this in five minutes, then I’ll reevaluate”.
‘Sometimes I can say “If I still feel like this in an hour”, or “If I still feel like this tomorrow”. It’s not about saying “I can never self-harm”, but if I can postpone it long enough, I do know that the urges will pass.’
Olivia says since there’s such a wide range of feelings that can lead to people wanting to self-harm, there’s unlikely to be one single thing that will work to help someone resist the urge every single time.
There are times when distraction works for her, and other times when she almost does the opposite and allows herself to sit with her feelings for as long as she needs to.
‘Self-harm is something that will always stay with me,’ she adds.
‘I don’t think it’s something that is going to leave my mind. It’s kind of an automatic response to any negative situation.
‘It’s not something I act on very often any more at all, but it’s that automatic pattern, and it’s about retraining your brain to get out of that pattern.’
To anyone who’s not self-harmed yet but has thought about it, Olivia would like to tell them: ‘It’s not worth it.
‘It’s not going to help in the long run, it just makes everything worse in the end.
‘It’s like an addiction, and just like an addict, you’re also hurting the people around you in addition to yourself.’
Don’t be shy about getting help whether you’ve never self-harmed or done it more times than you can count, she adds, you’re valid in reaching out for support.
When asked what she’d like people who’ve never self-harmed to know, she tells us: ‘Thinking about that makes me feel quite emotional because I’ve experienced so much stigma.’
Olivia understands that it’s not something that most of the general public and even healthcare professionals might not be the most experienced with.
‘That’s fine,’ she says, ‘but if you’re not knowledgeable about something, then you’re not knowledgeable enough to pass judgement. If you don’t know what it’s like to feel like that, then maybe don’t judge.’
Olivia is well aware of how strained the emergency services are, and already feels guilty when she needs to go to A&E for self-harming. Yet, in the past, some staff members have sadly taken it upon themselves to add to that guilt.
‘In very in recent years, I’ve been met with a lot of kindness in A&E,’ she recalls. ‘But in the past, I have felt quite judged by healthcare professionals who have thought that I’m wasting their time.
‘I’ve had people say very harmful things to me about why I’ve ended up in A&E.
‘Especially if you’re working in healthcare, you have to have an understanding that nobody wants to be going through this. It’s coming from a dark place.’
Olivia also brings up the scars she has, and how she often wants to ‘cover up’ during summer.
‘People have stared,’ she says, ‘people have made comments, strangers have even touched my scars. Almost like when a pregnant lady gets her belly touched.
‘I’ve had such inappropriate questions and I just don’t want that.
‘Respect people and their boundaries. Don’t do weird things like talking to strangers in public about why they’ve done that to themselves.’
How can you help?
If you think someone you care about is self-harming, the Samaritans advice is not to ignore it.
‘We know that people might find it difficult to know what to say to someone they care about who is hurting themselves, but the thing people normally need the most is emotional connection so it’s important to show you care and listen,’ says Katie.
‘You don’t need to have all the answers, but just listening and acknowledging how they feel can make all the difference.’
For parents who think their teen may be self-harming, Olivia stresses that while it might not be just ‘a phase’ – as it hasn’t been for her – people can get better.
‘Every bit of recovery is worthwhile,’ she says. ‘So don’t give up on the people around you, no matter how many times they might relapse. Please just keep supporting the people who need it, because they’re worth it.’
Self-harm also isn’t just a problem for teenagers, and it isn’t just something that afflicts straight white girls.
‘It’s adults, it’s men, it’s a lot of LGBTQ people, people who are trans, non-binary,’ Olivia says. ‘It’s not just the “basic white girls” that you think of being emo, or whatever.’
Olivia also addresses the problematic idea that people who self-harm are just ‘attention-seeking.’
‘That’s the last thing my self-harm has been for me,’ she says. ‘It’s been a way of punishing myself. It has attracted attention, but it’s mostly been attention that I haven’t wanted.’
She also argues that if someone were to be hurting themselves as a cry for help, what’s so wrong with that?
‘Attention is a very basic human need,’ she says. ‘Instead of “attention seeking”, it should be seen as “care seeking”. We all need care.’
Instead of dismissing someone’s actions as ‘attention-seeking’, Olivia argues that we should be asking why they might so desperately need this attention in the first place.
‘Don’t underestimate the dark place someone has to be in to do something like this to themselves,’ Olivia says, adding, ‘Just treat us like humans.
‘We’re not monsters with scars on our bodies, we’re just normal humans who’ve probably been through a bit of a rough time.’
You can read more tips on how to support someone who might be self-harming on the Samaritans website.
For emotional support you can call the Samaritans 24-hour helpline on 116 123, email [email protected], visit a Samaritans branch in person or go to the Samaritans website.
If you’re a young person, or concerned about a young person, you can also contact PAPYRUS Prevention of Young Suicide UK. Their HOPELINK digital support platform is open 24/7, or you can call 0800 068 4141, text 07860039967 or email: [email protected] between the hours of 9am and midnight.
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