Self Harm Etiquette For The Medical Profession

This is a blog post for anyone working in the medical profession. This includes Doctors, GPs, Nurses, Healthcare Assistants, Paramedics, Support Workers, Psychiatrists, Care Coordinators, Psychologists, Pharmacists, Admin staff and Receptionists. Basically anyone who comes into contact with a person who may have self harmed (therefore could also be useful for police officers too).

It has come to my attention that some of the people we want to help us deal with self harm can be some of the least useful with their comments and actions regarding dealing with self harm. Therefore I thought I’d put some tips together specifically for them and any professional that needs to help with self harm.

1. Don’t comment on it in front of other patients

This may sound really obvious. Patient confidentiality is key. Bringing it up in front of other patients without permission is wrong and can cause harm to the person who is self harming, the relationship between patient and professional and possibly even the other patient/s who could hear about it. You never know where this information will go. Unfortunately I know it happens. I’ve seen it happen.

2. Don’t guilt trip us

I’ve had this happen with a former GP. I was told I obviously didn’t love my parents over my self harm. It was awful. I didn’t return for treatment until two years later after a suicide attempt. This isn’t the only impact it can have. Self harm is not a selfish act. It’s a way of trying to keep going. It’s a way of coping. Most people who self harm probably already think about the perceived damage they do to others. To be guilt tripped by a professional is more likely to make the situation worse and even cause the patient to withdraw from seeking help, maybe until it is too late.

3. Don’t mimick self harm behaviour

Again this is something I have encountered and not just with one professional but many. It seems some can’t bear to say the words “self harm” and so use actions like using their hand to mimick cutting across an arm. Not only is this not clear communication, it can be triggering. It is a difficult topic but it is one that needs to be dealt with sensitively and professionally. Yes you do need to ask, but please use words rather than miming actions.

4. Be careful with what you say

Most professionals are careful with what they say. They think before they speak and take into account the individuals situation. That’s great if they know the patient. However without continuity of care, which is heavily missing in places, you may not know details or you may just be someone that only encounters someone briefly so has no background information to draw on. This means being careful with what you say. I’ve heard things that concern me. They may be useful for some but I can also see them as potentially inflammatory to the wrong person. I’ve heard “you’re scars look cool”, “just use your faith” and “what would your family think?” as common phrases among others. Let’s work backwards, the last comment can easily be seen as a possible guilt trip but it can also cause some negative emotions to surface, particularly if there is friction within the family. The middle comment is also dangerous as some people don’t have a faith and this may be because of trauma or abuse. It can also suggest unless you have a relationship with a god, you can’t be helped. The first statement may be the most troubling though. You’re reinforcing the behaviour. Yes self harm shouldn’t be something people feel ashamed of, but it shouldn’t be highly celebrated either.

5. Don’t judge or use stereotypes

Some professionals have a preexisting picture of what a person who self harms is. They may see them as frustrating and a drain on resources. They may see it as attention seeking. These stereotypes tend to grow over time within a staff member. I can see how hard it must be to treat someone who seems to be causing their own suffering. But it is a symptom of an illness. It is like an addiction. It is hard once you have started to stop. It can feel like all you have in the world at that time. It is a sign of distress. Being compassionate, non judgemental and just kind to the patient goes a long way. It can help the person to keep accessing help. Doing the opposite could push people away and leave them in dangerous situations.

6. Don’t compare us to other patients who have self harmed

Every person is going through their own unique experience with mental illness and self harm. Self harm is self harm. So it may not be as deep or as “bad” as someone else you have treated, but to that person the pain they feel inside is probably just as intense and unbearable. Hearing that we aren’t as serious as someone else because it doesn’t reach a certain level is heartbreaking and can have a negative impact. It can cause us to try and do more damage. It makes us think we aren’t good enough or that we don’t deserve help. Everyone, whatever level of self harm they present with, deserves support and compassion.

7. Don’t use the terms “superficial” or “attention seeking”

I hate the term superficial when it’s used to describe my self harm. It makes me feel like a rubbish self harmer and that I need to harm worse or more. It can encourage the behaviour and make things worse. The same can be said about the term attention seeking as it can drive the behaviour underground and prevent people getting help.

Those are just a few helpful hints for medical professionals. It might not be a regular thing you encounter but it is always useful to know how to help someone who self harms.

If you have any tips you wish professionals knew then feel free to use the comments or Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.

Picture from Pinterest

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