The concept of self-harm became apparent to me when I was 12. On the brink of being a teenager, these monstrous thoughts crept into my mind and nested themselves in my brain. On good days I was able to tell the monster that I needed to be alive. On the bad days I had my family knock on the bathroom door to check I was still conscious and unharmed.
As I grew older, I realised that this monster was far bigger than I had imagined. I saw the scars on friend’s arms and heard stories about people cutting. Soon I recognised that this was more than a personal struggle; it was a pandemic.
Born and bred in a Christian home, I was well aware of the significance of a blood sacrifice. First in the Old Testament when the Lord instructed Israel in how to atone for their sins, and then in the Gospels where Christ was pierced as a perfect sacrifice. As far as I was concerned, these were an aspect of ancient history. Yet since facing the temptation to cut myself everyday, it has become apparent to me that by the shedding of my own blood I would be partaking in something far greater than a simple action. Rather, it would have spiritual consequences in my life.
It is estimated that two million US citizens have harmed themselves in some manner. Irrespective of nationality, culture, religion, sex or age the phenomenon has affected every level of society and has consequently become increasingly recognised and talked about. Yet on a personal and spiritual level, how do we recognise when a friend is self-harming and what do we do about it?
Indicators someone is self harming can range from a person’s choice of clothing (wearing long sleeves in warm weather), the avoidance of meals, obsession with dark music such as Marilyn Manson or the posting of graphic, painful and violent images on the internet. Erratic behaviour, mood swings and even unexplained bruises, bumps and scars can all indicate that your friend needs help.
Another sign with young females could be an obsession with the phrase ‘Stay Strong’ coined by former Disney star and X Factor judge Demi Lovato. Speaking openly about her struggle with cutting and an eating disorder, Lovato has become a figurehead for many teens and young adults coping with self-harm.
Once we have identified that a person is potentially self-harming, what do we do about it? Aside from our duty of care as youth leaders, mentors and pastors, what are the steps we can take to be like Christ?
After battling with obsessive thoughts of cutting for years, here are five tips that I believe can equip you to help your friend.
1. Do not assume they are trying to suicide.
While self-harm and suicide are related, many people will harm themselves without the intent of suicide. However, this does not make their actions any less serious.
2. Ask them how they are feeling.
Self-harm is often an outlet so people can feel pain and express emotions they are unable to comprehend or control. Suggest other ways of releasing this emotion whether it is through journaling, music or physical exercise.
3. Have them seek professional help.
As best as you are able to, have your loved one see a medical professional. If their injuries are serious stay with them while they see the doctor or surgeon. If your friend is willing, take them to see a counselor or psychologist. Explain to them that this is a safe place to talk or even just sit.
4. Don’t carry the burden alone.
If you suspect that a person you care about is self-harming, don’t allow yourself to become their lifeline. While they need a friend to show them they are valued and loved, it is not your job to counsel and protect them. Link your friend up with professionals; communicate with their school, church and family. Recovery is a team effort, not a one-man show.
As simple as it seems, prayer can turn your friend’s situation round. The fact that Christ shed his blood for us so we do not have to is powerful (1 Peter 2:24). Claim this victory over your friend and pray consistently for their recovery even if it takes years.
As an individual who struggled with the temptation of cutting as a teenager, I am blessed to say that I am one of the few who have never self-harmed. The spiritual battle behind this self-mutilation cannot be underestimated; yet the knowledge that Christ is alive and has taken on my pain with the support of my family, friends and professionals means I can now live a life free of such fear and evil.
No person is ever too far-gone to experience the physical, emotional and spiritual freedom found in Christ. When you identify that someone is self-harming, do what you can for them and leave the rest with God. He has conquered far more in me than I could ever hope for, and can do the same in their situation.