While providing support for friends and loved ones dealing with traumatic experiences or mental illnesses is one of the most important ways that you can help them cope with difficult situations and distress, it can take a toll on your physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing. Only 60% of people with mental health issues receive mental health care, so family members and caregivers often provide the most support for these individuals. Mental health issues, trauma, addiction, and other struggles impact more people than just the person who is dealing with these issues. They influence friends, family, colleagues, and other people in their community. Helping others cope with their mental health problems and other issues can be incredibly stressful, and if not properly managed, this stress can lead to the “helper” developing problems of his own.
It is vital for caregivers, friends, and family members who are helping others through situations and issues that cause distress to practice self-care and healthy stress management. While self-care looks different for everyone, one of the best ways that anyone can make sure they are taking care of themselves when they are helping others is to visit a mental health professional.
Many people wrestle with the idea of seeking help or taking time for themselves when they are helping their friends and family members because they believe that the other individual has a more immediate or severe need. Often times, these helpers will say they will get help managing their stress after they get their loved one the help they need first. While this idea is honorable, it is not effective, and it can actually be detrimental for both the helper and the person being helped.
If you have ever flown on an airplane, you are familiar with the safety demonstrations that encourage you to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others in case of emergency. This instruction is stated because if someone loses consciousness trying to assist someone else, then neither person will be safe. This same idea applies to those people who try to provide care and support for their partner, friend, or family member without taking care of themselves first. If you are suffering yourself, then you will not be able to give adequate assistance to your loved one, which means that you will both struggle. When you are helping someone who is dealing with a severe problem, practice self-awareness and set aside time to seek help for yourself if you are exhibiting signs of distress.
Signs A Helper Might be in Distress
There are several signs that might indicate that a helper is in distress. Here are some of the most common indicators:
If you notice that you are experiencing increased levels of anxiety, your caregiving situation might be causing you distress. Symptoms of anxiety include constant or overwhelming fear and worry, sleep issues, shortness of breath, and panic. Severe anxiety can get in the way of your daily life and prevent you from helping others effectively, so it is important for you to look for these symptoms and get help if needed.
Irritability and Anger
If you find yourself more susceptible to anger, outbursts or general irritation, you may be struggling to manage high levels of stress and anxiety. Keep track of your mood and make note of any drastic changes regarding anger or irritation.
Fixating on the Problem
If supporting your loved one through a challenging time begins to preoccupy all of your thoughts, it is time for you to step back and consider seeking some help. Do not allow yourself to fixate on the situation or the problem your loved one is facing. If you start to focus on their problem instead of helping them as a person, you might be feeling distress. Address these concerns before you become resentful or unable to provide further support.
Putting Others Needs Before Your Own
While being selfless is an honorable trait, the needs of others should not come before your own wellbeing. If the time and energy you spend caring for someone is negatively influencing your mental, physical, or emotional health, you need to take a break so that you can take care of yourself. Find a therapist or support group that will help you cope with this stressful period in your life so that you can be better equipped to help others around you.
For more information on how to cope with specific psychological conditions, visit Dr. Syras Derksen.
A recent study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association highlights some extremely alarming current trends. This 15 year study, which recorded emergency room visits from 66 hospitals around the country has found that the number of teenage girls admitted for nonfatal self-harm has risen since 2008. Curiously, before 2008 rates were stable, so it is important to examine why this rise is taking place. Although suicide rates are on the rise for both boys and girls in the US, the rise in self-harming behaviours is limited to girls.
Self-harming behaviours including cutting, poisoning and overdosing on drugs are strong indicators of suicidal intentions or co-occurring mental illness such as anxiety or depression. Amongst the self-harming behaviours recorded, ingesting pills or poison was the most common method.
Self-harming is more common than many people may be aware. Prevalence rates are estimated to lie around the 10% mark and is not limited to young people.
It is also worth noting that the data discussed as part of this study involves admissions to emergency rooms only. It does not include injuries that were treated in doctors’ offices or that were never treated at all. As a result, the worrying findings highlighted by this study may not even reflect the full scope of the problem.
Why is This Happening?
One theory which has been put forward by researchers is that teens are spending too much time on their smartphones. It has been found that teens who spend five hours a day or more on their smartphone are 71% more likely to be at risk of suicide than those who spend an hour or less.
Although smartphone use may not be the actual cause of self-harm, it may put already vulnerable teenagers at further risk as it leads to increased social isolation (spending time alone scrolling through social media) and detracting from healthier behaviours such as exercise.
A more sinister reason that smartphone use may have a role to play in the rise of self-harm amongst girls is the growing online culture where teenagers encourage each other to self-harm and share photos and videos of the practice.
Social media may be normalising a behaviour that is extremely dangerous. It would be remiss to attribute all the blame to social media platforms, but it is certainly likely to be a factor, and with numbers rising it may be pertinent for parents and educators to speak openly to teenagers about self-harming behaviour.
Signs of Self-Harming
It can be hard to tell if someone has been self-harming, but often family members or friends will have a sense that something is not right. If you are worried someone you know may be self-harming then look out for any of the following signs:
Why Do People Self-Harm?
Self-harm is an extremely complicated behaviour which may be rooted in a myriad of issues. Often the individual who is self-harming may be experience emotional issues for which they require an outlet. It would be impossible to list all the possibilities but the following are some of the more common causes:
Social Problems: This encapsulates all the interpersonal difficulties an individual may be having. This could be being bullied at school, difficulties with co-workers or coming to terms with their sexuality.
Psychological problems: There is a link between self-harming and borderline personality disorder. Sometimes, those who self-harm have heard voices telling them to do so or have been disassociating (losing touch with their surroundings).
Trauma: Individuals who self-harm may often (but not always) have a history of trauma. This could be a bereavement, a history of physical or sexual abuse or any incidence which causes a high level of distress.
These issues, whether alone or combined, can lead to a build-up of negative emotions such as anger or self-hatred. The individual will often feel like they cannot speak openly of these feelings or turn for help, and so self-harm becomes an alternative method through which to express this.
What Can You Do if You Suspect That Your Child or Someone You Know is Self-Harming?
It is important not to respond in a negative manner to suspected self-harm. Don’t react in anger or disgust, or minimize the behaviour as “attention seeking”.
Ask what is going on in their life generally, and try to ascertain whether there is anything which may make him/her want to self-harm. Let them know that you are there to listen or to give any help that they may need right now.
Although it is difficult, it does not help to “confiscate” any tools that are being used to self-harm without prior agreement. The individual will find a way around this, ultimately eroding the trust you are trying to build.
It’s also important to express to them that this is a worry for you and something which needs a plan of action.
The first point of contact will often be your GP who can put you in touch with the relevant services. Schools may also have a child protection officer, or someone qualified who you may speak to.
Treatments include individual, group and family treatments and the family often have an important role to play in recovery.
The following resources may be helpful when a family member or friend is self-harming.
It is also important to remember to look after yourself when dealing with a loved one who is self-harming. This will ultimately be distressing for you too and make sure to speak to someone you trust or seek help when needed.
Mercado, M. C., Holland, K., Leemis, R. W., Stone, D. M., & Wang, J. (2017). Trends in Emergency Department Visits for Nonfatal Self-inflicted Injuries Among Youth Aged 10 to 24 Years in the United States, 2001-2015. Jama, 318(19), 1931-1933.
NHS Choices. (2015, June 04). Self-harm. Retrieved December 07, 2017, from https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/self-harm/