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Suicide Prevention: What to do if your friend self harms

What do you do if your friend tells you they are hurting themselves? Would you be shocked and angry, or caring and sympathetic? Would you blame yourself, or try to pin it on others? Would you try to understand, or wonder why a person would ever intentionally hurt themselves?

The point is, if your friend has decided to talk to you about this, your initial reaction is very important. Even though it might be hard to not freak out, you should try to stay calm. It will make things better for both you and your friend.

School counselor Kari Bliss explains how you should react.

“Show them you care and that their behavior doesn’t shock or alter your friendship. Make sure not to judge them.”

Most people who self harm will explain it like a coping mechanism. For some it can even become impulsive and addictive, and is rarely ever used for “attention seeking.” Because of this, it can become very hard for someone to stop. If the person says they want to stop, discussing ways to gradually reduce the severity or frequency of the self harming can be helpful. What is important is that you are helping to find a different way for them to get the emotions out.

Self harm is usually caused by overwhelming and difficult situations; it becomes a way to release those feelings or to feel a sense of control. Since it is typically something going on internally, you should ask them how they are feeling and explore what issues that could be causing them to want to hurt themselves.

“It is a mechanism that is used if they are feeling really depressed and lonely; they want pain inside to go away,” Bliss said. “It releases a similar feeling of happiness just as if you had gone on a jog or walk or watched a funny video; it releases some of the same endorphins. It’s only for just a moment that the pain is gone, but it comes right back.”

Being understanding is very important. It may be really difficult, but you should do everything you can to let your friend know they can count on you. Even if it is difficult for you to understand or accept what they are doing, you should try to be open-minded and respect what they are telling you. Listening to your friend in a caring manner is the key to getting them to open up more to really tell you what it is that is making them so upset to resort to hurting themselves.

While making sure they can trust you is important, you shouldn’t promise not to tell anyone.

“Don’t promise that you won’t say anything, because whether it’s going to get worse and become suicide or a cry for help, they still need to talk to someone and laugh; knowing someone cares is a huge help,” Bliss said.

When should you tell?

“When your gut feels like something might happen. Look for comments or behavior of them saying things like ‘I don’t want to be here anymore’ or ‘I just want to give up.’”

If you are scared for your friend but don’t know how to help you can recommend the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you think they might attempt suicide you can call 911 or a parent to check on them. If they are at school, you should let a counselor know immediately.