How to help a family member recover from self-harm
Posted by mandyf on June 3, 2012
Whether you are a parent, sibling, aunt, uncle, or grandparent, dealing with the issue of self-harm when it comes to a family member is a great challenge. In large part the challenge is compounded by the fact the dealing with the self-harming behavior (SHB) is only the tip of the iceberg. The SHB is a symptom of one or even multiple issues which have in some way become too much for the person engaged in SH to deal with.
Ideally your first step upon learning a family member is involved in SHB is to intervene. For most self-harmers, this isn’t a daily ritual, it is a release for the times when pressure, anxiety, or the need to take control or just feel reaches a point where they see no other alternative. As such you may actually catch them in the act of SHB although this isn’t very common. Most likely you will see the physical signs of bruising, scarring, burns, cuts, or assorted other possible physical markers that cannot be explained away rationally on a regular basis. By intervention, what is meant is that you let the person know you are aware of what is going on. You make them fully aware that they do have options besides SHB and that you are willing to give them all the support you possibly can.
The important thing about the initial intervention is that you have to make the person aware you do not think less of them, you are not angry at them, and that you will follow through with what you say you will do to help them. As soon as possible locate a professional therapist who is trained in dealing with self-harm patients. Don’t just make the appointment, but actually go with the person and wait for them. The first appointment is often the most difficult so you want to be as supportive as possible. Don’t pry into what transpired in their session. If and when they are ready to share with you , they will. If you are the parent or legal guardian and the patient is a minor, you can be filled in later. At that moment your main focus is your family member and making them feel comfortable and supported.
Make a follow-up appointment whether they think they need it or not. It is not at all uncommon for a person to resist help initially and they may cite any number of arguments for why it is a waste. Do not accept those after the first visit, it is important treatment is continued so the root problems can be identified and the best course of treatment put in motion. They may be angry with you at first, but they will appreciate it later.
Respect their privacy in regards to who you do and do not tell. The immediate family which interacts with the person daily should know about this so they can actively play a part in not only the recovery process, but to watch for potential signs the SHB is continuing. Aunt Sally living several hundred miles away who you do little more than exchange Christmas cards with does not need to know. Your neighbors and the checkout stand person at the grocery do not need to know. A person dealing with SHB has more than enough to deal with and does not need the stares and inquisitions of others. That will only increase the odds of SHB continuing. As per how you tell your immediate family about the problem is up to you, but do not have the person in question present unless under the advice of the professional treating them. Again this often adds to pressure and anxiety they already feel and can become aggravating for them as well.
Be observant and available for them. You have to watch for signs of continued SHB but physical and emotional. Look for changes in attitude and how they manifest. If a person with SHB history goes from deep depression to suddenly relieved with no logical explanation, that is a sign the SHB may be continuing. If they are prescribed medication make sure they not only get it, but take it as well. The real trick is to do this without looming over their shoulder placing an overwhelming feeling of distrust upon them. If requested, take an active role in their recovery process whether that be attending therapy sessions with them or just being there when they need someone to talk to.
Finally you must educate yourself and your family as best as you can so you can all be a part of the solution and not the problem. Make sure each person understands the truth about what self-harm is and is not. make them aware of what they can do to help and what is a detriment to recovery. Most of all make them aware that although this is a difficult process and does require some changes in the way the person is dealt with, it doesn’t mean you change your behavior with them drastically. You treat them as you always have, assuming of course you were not being abusive towards them and aggravating or causing the problems which led to SHB itself. It is important that they feel normal, not better or worse than anyone else, not special, just normal.
If you or someone you know is involved in or considering any form of self-harm or self-injury please call 1-800-DONTCUT where both immediate help and referals to trained professionals in the treatment of SHB in your are can be obtained.