A Friend Is Cutting Themselves (How to help)

This blog guide will help us understand what we can do when a friend is cutting themselves. We will outline tips and suggestions on what you should and should not do. Further, we will explore the importance of helping a friend who is self-harming and what to do when they reject help.

Note that self-harm is a serious issue that entails adverse consequences. If you or anyone you know has ideations of or have attempted to engage in self-harm, contact your national suicide hotline immediately. Check out these resources by WhatsApp and SuicideStop from which to seek help.

A Friend Is Cutting Themselves

We all know that some individuals harm themselves purposefully. If you suspect your friend is doing the same, let us find out what you can do to help.

Here is a list of things you can do to help a friend who is cutting themselves:

  • Be aware;
  • Be mindful of your feelings;
  • Have a conversation;
  • Validate their feelings;
  • Be compassionate;
  • Encourage them to talk to someone;
  • Assist in finding resources;
  • Help them find alternatives; and
  • In case of an emergency, get immediate help.

Be aware

You may find it challenging to comprehend why your friend might cut themselves. Cutting is a type of self-harm, and so is burning one’s skin with a matchstick, lighter, or even a cigarette. Cuts could fade or not be as visible as scars from a burn. So, you could be wary of these scars if you suspect your friend is engaging in self-harm.

Most often, individuals who self-harm do not open up about it, keeping others in the dark. However, sometimes, they may talk about it to a friend. Other times, a friend may come to know about it somehow.  

Be mindful of your feelings

Coming to learn of a friend cutting themselves can be distressing to everybody. You may feel many different things, including confusion, sadness, fear, and even anger. You might question if you need to say or do something and, if yes, what you can say or do to help them. 

The first step is to understand more about self-harm, reasons specific individuals cut themselves, and what they could do to stop engaging in self-harm. Compassionately disseminating this information to your friend would show your concern and consideration and help them begin their healing process. 

Keep in mind that how you feel about it is normal and understandable. Remember to take care of yourself. You could engage in self-care activities, such as listening to music, exercising, journaling, and doing things that bring you joy and tranquility. Talk to a mental health professional to understand more about what is happening. Remind yourself that cutting yourself is a maladaptive way of dealing with your emotions. 

Learning more about the issue conveys support, but is there anything you can do to help stop it from happening? 

Firstly, be pragmatic about what you can accomplish. Most self-sabotaging behaviors, including substance abuse, are challenging to overcome as people are unwilling to recognize it as a problem to be motivated to discontinue. Avoid taking on too much pressure as your friend’s cutting behaviors could be a deep-rooted issue demanding the attention of mental health professionals.

Psychologists who are experts in this area and commonly work with individuals who self-harm can help your friend overcome underlying issues that cause them to cut themselves.  

Have a conversation

Express your non-judgmental stance on this issue before broaching this subject. If your friend refuses to talk about it and attempt to switch topics, try again. Convey to them that you are there for them anytime they want to have a conversation about it. Expressing concern and support is critical to have such discussions. Remember that your friend may still be uncomfortable to open up about it despite these efforts, and that is okay as you tried your best.

Validate their feelings

Acknowledge and validate your friend’s experiences and emotions. Do not disregard them with words like, “But you have so much to look forward to,” “Your problems are not that bad,” or “Be positive.” Instead, convey your concerns to them, that you cannot imagine the pain they are in, and let them know you are there. 

Be compassionate

Probably, your friend is already experiencing guilt and feeling embarrassed. While talking to them, try to be compassionate and not blame, scold, or get mad at them. Do not convey disgust or disapproval.  Take a non-judgmental outlook and help them. Listen actively to what they are saying and express that you care. 

Encourage them to talk to someone

Suppose your friend insists on keeping their self-harming a secret, encourage them to talk about it to a professional or an expert who is adept at helping in this regard. Tell them you care about them and coax them into seeking help. 

Assist in finding resources

Aid your friend in finding a professional to whom to talk. There are specific reading material and support platforms (online and offline) that cater to adolescents who cut themselves. Be mindful of which resources you offer as some online platforms contain triggering pictures sent by other platform users. Some websites promote self-harm in the name of solidarity. Remember that self-harm is not “cool” and is an unhealthy coping mechanism.

Help them find alternatives

Some individuals report that the desire or urge to cut themselves fades away if they take a walk, listen to music, dance, grip an ice cube, tearing papers, or even mark the body part they want to cut with a red pen. You can suggest these or find other sources of distraction to vent their frustrations and overwhelming emotions. These are temporary recommendations, and for long-term improvements, it is best to seek a professional.  

In case of an emergency, get immediate help

If your friend is seriously injured, call the emergency provider or get them to a hospital at once. Although self-harm is not intended to cause fatal injuries, it could happen. Tend to them immediately. 

What You Should Not Say or Do

The following is a list of things you should not say or do to a friend who is cutting themselves: 

  • Provide an ultimatum;
  • Unconsciously reinforce their self-harm behaviors; and
  • Join in 

Provide an ultimatum 

Be there for them by providing acceptance and support to them in a non-judgmental way. Do not offer ultimatums to your friend who is cutting themselves. For instance, do not say anything along the lines of, “If you do not stop harming yourself, I will stop being your friend.” It is counterproductive and is pressuring. Instead, tell them you care and are there for them. 

Unconsciously reinforce their self-harm behaviors

For some individuals, cutting themselves can have a specific aura. If you are genuinely concerned about them, prohibit them from caving into such ideas that cutting is a display of courage, rebellion, or a part of who they are. Avoid reinforcing their behaviors with excessive attention.

Join in

To make somebody become a part of a clique, some individuals attempt to drag others into cutting themselves. They may challenge you or persuade you to experience harming yourself. Remind yourself that these behaviors are not useful and are maladaptive. Avoid letting such pressure get to you.

How Important Is It to Help?

As mentioned earlier, people do not intend for self-harm to cause grave or fatal injuries. It not an attempt to die by suicide. Most individuals who self-harm claim to know when to stop and don’t intend to kill themselves. 

However, even when they do not plan for suicide, cutting could lead to grave injuries that may even be fatal. Moreover, there is a risk of scarring, infections, shock due to loss of blood, and fatality resulting from severe injuries or improper and untimely treatment of horrible cuts.  

Further, in the absence of support, those who cut themselves remain socially withdrawn, isolated, and profoundly sad. These individuals may have other mental health conditions, such as borderline personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, eating disorder, or severe depression. These conditions require immediate professional help and for long durations. 

If you help a friend acknowledge their self-harming issue, you can allow them to recover from other underlying problems as well. 

In Case Your Friend Rejects Help

It is incredibly challenging to help a friend who is cutting themselves. Many people are not willing to come to terms with what they are undergoing, for which you are not to blame. 

Specific individuals may not be ready to seek or accept support or be willing to address their problems immediately upon your encouragement. You must be patient and allow your friend to take their time to consider your suggestions.  

Even though they may not respond the way you would like for them to, do not refrain from attempting to help them. Most of the time, a person merely requires genuine concern. In your effort to reach out and express consideration, they may take the first step toward recovery. 

There is a possibility that your friend may react with anger or tell you that you do not understand them. On the flip side, they may appreciate your concern but might be unwilling to receive help. 

It is okay and understandable for you to feel worried, upset, disappointed, helpless, angry, or sad in any of these cases. Such feelings are more prominent when you are the only one who is aware of what is happening. If it gets overwhelming for you, seek help. 

It can be frustrating and significantly tricky when your friend does not let you help them. However, do not internalize their problems and feel guilty and overly responsible for their experiences. It is natural and even recommended for even the best of friends to pause and take a step back from an emotionally-laden circumstance. 

Ensure you care for yourself and tend to your feelings and needs. Do not get caught up in anything that drains or exhausts you. 

Side Note: I have tried and tested various products and services to help with my anxiety and depression. See my top recommendations here, as well as a full list of all products and services our team has tested for various mental health conditions and general wellness.

Conclusion

This blog guide helped us understand what we can do when a friend is cutting themselves. We gathered tips and suggestions on what you should and should not do. Further, we explored the importance of helping a friend who is self-harming and what to do when they reject help.

Frequently Asked Questions: Friend is Cutting Themselves

Is there a way I can stop myself from cutting?

Yes, there are a few ways that you can try to stop yourself from cutting:

Engage in self-care activities;
Express your feelings to someone;
Practice relaxation techniques, like meditation or deep breathing;
Distract yourself; 
Vent out your frustrations;
Connect with others;
Substitute cutting with something else (e.g., rubbing an ice cube, stomping your feet)

What should I tell my friend who is cutting themselves?

If your friend is cutting themselves, broach the subject at the right time. Do not hurry. You need to be in a calm headspace so that you do not react irrationally. Your friend must feel comfortable enough to have the conversation with you. When you talk to them, try saying the following things:

“I noticed a few marks on your body. You know how much I care about you, so I am worried. Is there anything you want to talk about?”
“It is okay if you do not want to have this conversation right now. Please know that I am always there for you.”
“I cannot imagine the pain you must be in. Is there anything I can do to make you feel better?” (most often, they do not open up about how you can help them. In this case, make suggestions)
“I am willing to help you in any way I can, but I will not be able to do it alone. Do you think we can try finding some additional support for you?”
“Can you tell me what makes you want to cut yourself?”

Do not ask any “Why?”s as such questions put them in a spot and could trigger overwhelming responses or they may get defensive.

What should you not tell somebody who is harming themselves?

Here are a few things you should never tell somebody who is harming themselves:

“What you are going through is not that bad.”
“Can I see your scars?”
“I will stop being your friend if you do not stop cutting yourself.”

Why do people cut themselves?

People cut themsevles because self-harm is a coping mechanism albeit an unhealthy one. If they feel numb, they cut themselves to feel something. Sometimes, people self-harm to distract themselves from the emotional pain. 

It is possible that they underwent childhood trauma, like abuse or neglect. There may be some underlying mental health condition, like:

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD);
Severe depression with suicidal ideations; and
A severe anxiety disorder

What we recommend for depression

Professional counselling

If you are suffering from depression then ongoing professional counselling may be your ideal first point of call. Counselling will utilize theories such as Cognitive behavioural therapy which will help you live a more fulfilling life.

References

https://kidshealth.org/en/teens/friend-cuts.html

http://www.ulifeline.org/articles/437-how-to-help-a-friend-who-is-self-injuring

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Sara Quitlag is an Applied Psychologist, with a deep interest in psychopathology and neuropsychology and how psychology impacts and permeates every aspect of our environment. She has worked in Clinical settings (as Special Ed. Counselor, CBT Therapist) and has contributed at local Universities as a Faculty member from time to time. She has a graduate degree in English Literature and feels very connected to how literature and psychology interact. She feels accountable and passionate about making a "QUALITY" contribution to the overall global reform and well-being. She actively seeks out opportunities where she can spread awareness and make a positive difference across the globe for the welfare of our global society.