“Can we go together to tell a trusted adult?”
“When did it all start?”
“How can I help?”
“Tell me more.”
“Does anyone else know?”
“How do you feel about this?”
You want to know how you can help a friend who is cutting. When someone tells you they are cutting, which is also called non-suicidal self-injury, they are struggling and probably want someone to listen. (There are resources below.)
I want you to know, however, that you only have to listen long enough to recognize there is a problem.
Connect with the pain first
In other words, you don’t say things like, “You are so wonderful, why would you do that to yourself?” Phrases tend to make the sufferer feel misunderstood. The shame is likely to drive them to cut more because that is how they are coping with difficult emotions. So meet them where they are.
Cutting is an unhealthy coping strategy. Bullying, divorce, death of a parent, for example, can all be reasons that drive someone to cut but we do self-harm means something is gravely wrong in this person’s life.
Cutting can go from being a habit to addiction but it’s important not to shame the person as that can drive them to engage in more of the behavior. It is one in which someone might not be able to move away from right away and can have many relapses. It can be what prevents someone from taking their life. So it’s important that they replace that coping strategy slowly with a healthier one and that takes time. So what do you do or say?
How is this making you feel?
Since you looked this up, I want you to think about how the fact that a friend is self-harming makes you feel.
- Are you feeling helpless, confused, anxious?
- Are you afraid your friend will be mad at you if you do tell someone?
- Are you feeling overwhelmed that such a big problem was laid at your feet?
While you don’t need to share your reservations with the friend who is cutting, know that you might need to talk and have someone listen to you.
Next, ask yourself this very important question because it’s the answer that will drive what you will do about it.
- Since it is life-threatening do you think this is a secret you can keep?
- Is this behavior potentially life-threatening?
- Would you rather your friend be mad at you than dead?
Although self-harm is rarely an attempt at suicide, those who engage are at higher risk of taking their life due to being desensitized to pain and fear of harming themselves, so you want to say something before it escalates or gets out of control. Because it is dangerous.
Listening is the key skill
You may think that listening is not doing anything. But the more you listen and do not try to “fix” the more you are helping. It’s a skill that is way underrated. Just think about when you stated a problem how you felt when someone talked over you and started presenting solutions. Did you feel heard?
How do you feel when someone is quiet while you talk and even says things like “that must be really hard” or “tell me more?” Empathetic listening is a gift you can give someone and it’s a very valuable one.
Empathetic listening involves nodding your head, making eye contact if in person, and saying ummmmm to let the person know you are there and hearing what they have to say.
Ask open-ended questions
So key phrases and open-ended questions might be some of the following.
- Tell me more
- I’m honored you trust me enough to tell me this
- How long has this been going on?
- When did the self-harm start?
- How is all of this making you feel?
- Does anyone else know?
- Has anything else been going on in your life?
Connect with a trusted adult
This isn’t a secret you can keep to yourself. And you can encourage someone to go with you to tell a trusted adult, teacher, school counselor, parent, or a coach. But if they don’t, you need to tell someone. For one, you can fix this. And two, this person needs help and support that you are not qualified to fix.
Sample conversation with someone who is cutting
The script below, although simplistic and probably corny, will give you the idea of a direction in which to go to help you help a friend who is cutting.
Friend: I’ve been cutting
You: I’m honored you trust me. That took a lot of courage. It sounds so painful. Do you know why you are cutting?
Friend: I don’t know.
You: When did it start?
Friend: I think it started after those girls texted that embarrassing picture of me with Jason naked from that party. It was so humiliating. I was so drunk.
You: I am so sorry that is really cruel. Tell me how that made you feel. I’m listening.
Friend: It’s so stupid but when I think about that or a lot of things, I cut myself and at that moment it feels good… and then later I feel ashamed and embarrassed. I keep thinking I’ll stop but then I get those feelings again and I do it again.
You: It sounds like something really awful happened that triggered the cutting. Do you cut when other bad things happen?
Friend: I guess I do. Yeah. A bad test score. An argument. But yeah.
You: I feel worried about you. Can we talk to an adult you trust? I can go with you. Who do you think would be good? How about your soccer coach?
Your job is to listen and let a trusted adult know so your friend gets help.
You can do that in partnership with your friend. But if she or he doesn’t want to, you’ll have to go forward and tell a trusted adult discreetly and in private. Because no matter why someone is cutting, you can be sure it is a sign that something is gravely wrong in that person’s life and they need help beyond what you can provide. But you can still be there for support.
Here are the basic steps:
- I am honored you trust me enough to tell me about this
- Listen empathetically–with your heart without judgment
- Ask if they are thinking of or are attempting suicide
- Say things like, “I’m concerned about you.”
- Tell a trusted adult. You may fear they might get mad at you but I imagine you’d rather a friend be mad than dead. And often no one stays mad. An alternative is to engage that friend and tell that trusted adult together. A trusted adult is a teacher, parent (yours or someone else’s), school counselor, coach, minister.
This doesn’t fix everything but it’s a start. It’s a scary, frustrating and baffling behavior for most of us. We want to say, “just stop cutting.”
Please understand that it’s more complicated than that.
- Calm Harm (App) is available for free through Google Play and App Store provides timed activities to help resist or manage self-harm urges with ability to log completed activities and track progress (for teens)
- The Adolescent Self Injury Foundation provides information and resources to adolescents and young adult self-injurers and their families. In particular, their How Parents Can Help page provides a list of “Do’s and Don’ts” to guide parents on how to help a loved one, and an extensive list of alternative behaviors to help self-injurers implement alternative coping mechanisms.
- A.F.E. Alternatives, provides information and resources on self-harm and referrals to treatment options, including an information helpline at (800) 366-8288, 800-DON’TCUT. (USA phone number. Not sure if it works from Canada or not.)
- Self Injury guidance for Schools/Educators
- From NAMI self-harm blog
- The Buddy Project aims to prevent suicide and to provide self-harm alternatives by pairing people through social media as buddies and raising awareness for mental health. (this is not currently active but being developed as an app)