LifeLines is a monthly column dedicated to addressing issues of mental, behavioural, and social health. The column appears on the 1st weekend of the month, and is written by professionals in the field of social work, mental health, and community medicine”.

By Stevee Jones

Sheena arrives home from another long day at school opens her bedroom door and drops on her bed. The scenes of the day replay in her mind – the mean girls in her class calling her ‘ugly’, ‘fat’ and other terrible names, a test paper on which she did poorly again and falling to the ground as someone chooses her to be the practical joke of the day in the school yard, in view of the entire school and the boy she likes. Now at home, she hears her mother and this month’s new boyfriend arguing as usual, a dish colliding with the wall and shattering into a million pieces. The door slams and there is a momentary silence which is interrupted by what sounds like thunderous pounding on her mother’s bedroom door. Then the shouting match starts again. She escapes into the bathroom with her school bag, locks the door, rushes to the sink and looks into the mirror. After what feels like forever, she tears her eyes away from the image of her broken face and pulls out a razor from her bag. Rolling up her sleeves, the old scars on her inner left arm become evident. She takes a deep breath as she escapes into her world once more.

In numerous countries around the world and yes, even in the federation of St Kitts and Nevis self harm is afflicting many individuals – young and old, male and female.

Self-harm may be described as anything done to purposely harm oneself, and is often done as a way of expressing and coping with deep emotional anguish. Individuals who indulge in self harm have described the action as helping them relieve pain and pressure, decrease anxious feelings, feel in control (if feelings of helplessness abound) and also to allow them to feel alive – something other than the numb feeling that may result from detachment due to trauma.

The act of self-harm causes a distraction from the emotional pain, and although this is short-lived, the individual may repeat the behaviour to escape the recurring feelings of pain, sadness, guilt, rage and/or self hate – just some of the emotions that individuals who indulge in self harm may be experiencing. It is likely that a person who self harms may have experienced very difficult and painful experiences as a child or young adult.

At the time of the trauma they may have felt isolated, fearful and unable to confide in anyone. The experience may have been emotional abuse, physical abuse or sexual assault, or the individual may have been separated from a loved one, harassed, bullied, isolated, neglected or put under intolerable pressure.

Examples of Self-Harm

Self-harm can be carried out in various ways, including:
• sticking objects into oneself
• hitting your body against a hard or dangerous object e.g. a wall
• consuming poisonous substances
• cutting or scratching the skin
• deliberately preventing wounds or cuts from healing
• scalding or burning oneself

There are warning signs to be aware of if you think a family member, friend or loved one may be indulging in self harm:
* Unexplained cuts, bruises or burns, usually on the covered arms or leg areas
* Covering up even when the weather does not require one to
* Irritability and isolation
* Secretiveness
* Carrying sharp objects such as razors or needles everywhere
* Blood stains on clothes, towels or napkins and regular ‘accidents’ to explain them

Engaging in risky behaviors such as unprotected sex with multiple partners, drinking and eating excessively, bulimia and anorexia and indulging in drugs are all considered subtle forms of self injury as well.

While the act of hurting oneself may bring emotional relief to the sufferer, one must acknowledge that although self harm elicits such feelings, it is maladaptive. The shame and disgust most individuals experience after indulging in self harm pushes them to be secretive as they try to hide their actions. This causes the self-harming behaviour to be repeated, out of feelings of embarrassment and loneliness. Self harm can be addictive and persons may hurt themselves more than they intend to. People who harm themselves often do not intend on committing suicide. That is a misconception. However individuals have died as a result of self harm. Possible infections and scarring may also be a result.

Getting Help

If you or anyone you know indulges in self harm, it is urgent that you seek help immediately. Counsellors and other mental health professionals can assist persons in working through painful feelings as well as exploring ways of coping. There are healthy ways of dealing with emotional trauma, which include the tips below:

* It is important to identify your feelings whether they be guilt, shame, anger etc, as well as what triggers or causes such emotions

* Communicating your feelings to someone you trust and to someone who would not judge you is important

* Learning new coping skills – dancing, writing, singing, drawing and participating in sports are some ways of expressing powerful emotions. Listening to music, watching funny movies and taking long walks are just a few ways to relax and calm down.

It is important to acknowledge the root of the emotions that causes an individual to self harm and encourage communication. Self harm has been described as “An outward expression of inner pain – pain that is often rooted in early life. There is often a connection between self harm and childhood trauma. Self harm may be your way of coping with feelings related to past abuse, flashbacks, negative feelings about your body, or other traumatic memories.” Contact your mental health providers or seek out counsellors that may assist you. The Nevis Mental Health Unit is situated upstairs the pharmacy in the Alexandra Hospital, and the telephone number is 469 5473 or 469 5474 ext. 1140. In St. Kitts, the Counselling Center is located at Greenlands, Basseterre; telephone number 465-5000.

Help is available – you are not alone!

Stevee Jones, is a Counsellor at
Mental Health Unit, of the Alexandra Hospital- Nevis

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