Helping a Self-Harming Friend Open Up
Finding out that someone you love has a secret is always shocking, but few secrets are as devastating as self-harm. Helping a self-harming friend open up about their struggle may be beneficial for you both, but how do you tackle such a sensitive subject without damaging your relationship?
Understanding the Reasons for Your Self-Harming Friend’s Silence
Before you break the silence, you should first consider why it is there in the first place. This is not the time to make assumptions, but rather an opportunity to try and put yourself in your self-harming friend’s shoes. You may not be able to imagine wanting to hurt yourself as your friend does, but most people can relate to the reasons why many people who self-harm keep it secret. These may include:
- Guilt or shame. Even people who enjoy an initial sense of relief or euphoria from self-injury may feel dirty, damaged, or ashamed of their actions afterward. It can be incredibly difficult to speak out about something that you fear may lower a loved one’s opinion of you.
- Lack of trust. If your relationship has been rocky in the past, or if you have difficulty keeping secrets (whether other’s or your own), your friend may understandably be hesitant to share something with you that you might find challenging to keep to yourself. It is also possible that your friend has tried to speak with someone about this issue already, only to be betrayed and left feeling that silence may be the best policy after all.
- Lack of intimacy. If you have not known this friend for long, have not spoken in a long time, or simply don’t know them very well beyond your shared hobbies or interests, they may not feel ready yet to speak with you about something as intimate as their mental health.
- Cultural perspective. Cultural or religious beliefs may lead some who self-harm to conclude that they must suffer in silence, or even that self-harm is a necessary punishment for some real or imagined vice.
There may, of course, be other reasons involved as well. You can’t be expected to read your friend’s mind or to have all the answers. The point is not necessarily to guess correctly, but to understand that your friend may have very good reasons—even if you don’t agree with them—for keeping mum about this topic in the past. As such, your friend may be resistant to broaching the topic now, even if it is obvious that you are now aware of the issue.
Speaking With a Self-Harming Friend About Their Struggle
Keep in mind, before approaching your friend about their self-harm, that it is not ultimately up to you to save this person. You are not the hero of this story; you are a supporting character. Your role is not to force your friend to stop hurting themselves, or to provide a « cure. » Rather, the purpose of broaching the subject of self-harm should be to remind your friend that you are on the same side, that the truth has not lowered your opinion of your friend, and that you can be counted on to help as you are able. If any of these things is not true, it may be best not to broach the subject with them at all.
The best thing you can offer your friend is support and encouragement as they pave their own path to recovery.
The decision to begin walking that path is your friend’s alone to make; nobody has the power to make that choice for somebody else. But you can offer a ride to or from the hospital when things go south. You can pick up the phone when it rings at two o’clock in the morning because your friend needs to hear from a voice of reason. You can help your friend find a therapist or other medical professional, or even help research long-term treatment facilities or programs. And you can cheer your friend on, every step of the way, once the recovery process is begun.
You can’t heal your friend directly, but your help may be the catalyst for change—or at the very least, a load-bearing support in the foundations of your loved one’s recovery.