When someone—a friend, a family member, or a loved one—is self-harming, we’re scared for them. All we want is their safety. It hurts us to see them hurt. And we want nothing more than to save them. We just want them to stop self-harming.
But one of the hard truths we must accept about helping someone who is self-harming is that we can’t make them stop—only they can do that. While we can’t stop their pain, we can be there for them, support them, and get them connected to the resources they need.
Seeing someone you care about harming themselves is scary. You may feel pressured to try and control their behavior—or do everything you can do to get them to stop self-harming. Or maybe you blame yourself when they don’t stop. But the most important thing to remember is that you can’t take responsibility for someone else. You can’t save them, stop their pain, or make them stop self-harming. Before you can help them, you have to let go and accept that you don’t have control over their behaviors.
People who self-harm often experience shame around their behaviors. If they reached out to you for support, then it took an incredible amount of strength and trust for them to ask for help. Try to avoid reacting quickly out of shock or worry. Though these reactions may come from a place of concern, they may make the person you are supporting shut down. And this could also make them more hesitant to reach out to others for support in the future.
It’s OK to ask questions about how self-harm helps them and why they do it. It may be helpful for you to know how they harm themselves and how often. But if they are not open to sharing details, then you should respect their privacy. It is also important to ask if they are thinking about suicide. Talking about suicide with someone who self-harms will not put the idea in their head—in fact it could be more helpful. Not all people who self-harm are suicidal, but if they are, getting them help is urgent.
Here are other questions that you can ask:
- Have you ever tried to quit before?
- Were there strategies that worked well?
- What makes you want to self-harm?
- Are there other coping skills you have for when those feelings come up?
Follow their lead
Be there. Ask lots of questions. Listen. Don’t jump to giving advice. Find out why they do it. Be honest about how you feel. Show support and love. And if you’re in a tough spot and feel alone in helping your friend, reach out to someone who can help you. Getting help for cutting is like getting help for other addictions—it’s hard to do it alone.
They are in the driver’s seat on their journey, and you are the passenger—present and right by their side. Self-harm may be the only coping skill they have right now. Quitting self-harm is a process and only they can decide when they are ready to stop. The best you can do for them is to follow their lead and be present.
Ask them what they need. Do they want someone to listen, find resources, or help them reach out to a therapist? If they want to reach out to a therapist or another mental health professional, then offer to help them. You may even offer to go with them if they are comfortable with you being there. If you are under 18 and they give you permission to do so, tell an adult that they trust that you are worried. And if necessary, seek emergency medical help. Helping someone who is self-harming is not easy, but your support shows them that they are not alone.
Having conversations about mental health can be difficult. Check out this worksheet for seven tips for talking to your loved ones about their mental health. You can also read this article for more information about how you can help someone who is self-harming.