Dispelling myths about self-injury are necessary in order to support folks who struggle with it.


by Carrie Hawks

Content warning: Mentions of self-harm, cutting, and suicidal ideation

Not being seen, not being known, and having nowhere to turn to feel safe is devastating at any age, but it is particularly destructive for young children who are trying to find their place in the world. Bessel van der Kolk

As a Black Queer person who self harmed as a youth, I felt completely alone. I didn’t know what I know now, that up to 47% of bisexual women self-injure. The first time I saw someone who looked like me admitting to self harming behavior was while watching Pops!, a web series about Black fatherhood that was released in late October of 2017.

After speaking with Joan Goodman LCSW-C, founder of the Adolescent Self-Injury Foundation, I learned that this experience is common in LGBTQIA+ and youth living in the foster care system. In 1996, patients who self-injured began coming to Dr. Goodman, who observed that if a young person has a barrier preventing them from reaching out for help, they may turn to self-harm. 

RELATED: Black people self harm, too

When I cut, I never tried to take my own life. I only tried to help myself feel and be in my body. I tried to control at least one aspect of my world as so much seemed out of my control. Whether or not I felt better, at least I felt something, and saw the imprint immediately. 

Like me, many people engage in self-harming practices for a variety of reasons, sometimes to punish themselves, to stop feeling numb, as a way to ask for help when verbalizing is too difficult, or a way to tame overwhelming emotions.5 When I get extremely upset, it’s very challenging for me to speak, this could be considered selective mutism, which occurs for some autistic people (as myself), trauma survivors, or others. 

Dispelling myths about self-injury are necessary steps in supporting folks who struggle with it. In Making Sense of Self-Harm, Peter Steggals writes self-harm is, “like a letter that has been written but not sent, set aside in a safe place with the possibility that it may be sent in the future and with the hope that by then the recipient will be able to understand it, to recognize the truths that it contains. The writing of this letter, of inscribing ‘please help me’ onto the body, would seem in and of itself to often be enough, at least for the immediate psychological needs of the person.”

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Facts about self-injury:

  • 30-40% of people who self-injure are male.
  • While people of any background may self-injure, Black, Brown and Indigenous people are rarely represented as self-injurers. 
  • Self-injury is not a suicide attempt. Bessel van der Kolk writes, “Patients who cut themselves are seldom suicidal but are trying to make themselves feel better in the only way they know.”
    • There are many reasons people may turn to self-injury, including wanting help including being unsure of how to express ourselves in words, controlling extremely painful and frightening emotions, or escaping feelings of emptiness. 

Here are some supportive options that may help folks move away from self-harm, like they helped me: 

  • Spend time with a kind animal, for some relating to a non-human creature can be more comforting, and it removes the potential social anxiety 
  • Start a charm bracelet. For every week you do not self-injure, give yourself a new charm. Joan Goodman, the founder of ASIF, led crafting groups therapy sessions with people who used to self-harm. Having a visual marker and a supportive environment provided much relief for some of her patients. In the group, they explained what the charm meant to them.
  • 146 Things to do besides Self-Harm, Adolescent Self-Injury Foundation including letting yourself cry, or using a punching bag. 
  • Draw a butterfly on your body where you may have wanted to harm yourself. You may have someone else draw the butterfly on you, and the goal is not to harm while the butterfly is still on your skin, otherwise you may hurt it. The butterflies are special and should be handled with care. Learn more at The Butterfly Project.
  • Make a self-soothe box full of sensory items and activities that may help you when you’re stressed out. You can include things to keep your hands busy like playdough, fidget spinners. Good smells: objects with lavender scent or other aromas that you like. Photos of favorite memories and people that care about you, and their contact information if you need to reach out. A list of activities that you enjoy doing. The names of songs that make you happy.  More suggestions here.
  • Talk to someone about what you’re feeling. There’s a lot of stigma around self-injury. If someone comes to you, they are trusting you with a vulnerable aspect of their life. You can access the Self-Harm Crisis Textline Text HOME to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor

Sources cited:

van der Kolk, Bessel The Body Keeps the Score, 2015, Penguin Books

Adler, Patricia A. and Adler, Peter. 2011 The Tender Cut, New York University Press

Steggals, Peter. 2015 Making Sense of Self-Harm, Palgrave McMillian

Carrie Hawks (they/them) is a multidisciplinary artist working in animation, drawing, collage, sculpture, and performance. Their art confronts self-imposed and external assumptions about identity in order to promote healing, particularly in relation to Blackness, gender, and queer sexuality.