I have a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (known in the UK as emotionally unstable personality disorder). BPD is sometimes known in the Netherlands as emotion regulation disorder, because it causes people to be unable to deal with intense and rapidly shifting emotions. BPD sufferers get stressed much more easily than those without mental health problems. They also tend to cope with stress ineffectively. One destructive coping mechanism that is common in BPD is self-harm.
Self-injury is not unique to people with BPD. In fact, starting with DSM-5, non-suicidal self-injury is its own diagnosis in the psychiatrist’s manual. Before then, if a person self-harmed, they were often incorrectly diagnosed with BPD, which has many more symptoms than just self-injury.
Self-injury is also common in people with autism, which is my other diagnosis. It is thought that people with autism, particularly those with a co-occurring intellectual disability, self-harm as a way of self-stimulatory behavior (to regulate sensory input) or as a way to communicate. For example, they might start to self-harm when they are overloaded sensorially or cognitively, or when they are in pain.
People with BPD are thought to self-harem to regulate their emotions. For instance, they may feel intense hopelessness or rage, or they may conversely feel numb and self-harm to have any sensation at all.
Self-harm is commonly thought of as a way of manipulating or attracting attention. This may be true, but isn’t necessairly. Many people feel a lot of shame about their self-harm. I, for one, don’t tend to self-injure to garner attention of others. I self-harm for many reasons, one of them being expressing emoitons to myself.
It is important to realize that people who self-injure, no matter their diagnosis, are in distress, be it physical, sensory, cognitive or emotional. It is important to find out what precedes the self-injury and what follows it. Don’t make judgments about what goes on inside the self-injurer’s mind. For example, I commonly start self-harming when I get frustrated trying to communicate my needs to my staff. It may then be easy to assume I do it “for attention”, because the staff give me more one-on-one attention when I self-injure. However, if I am able to communicate my needs effectively, I don’t self-injure to get attention. Behvior is communication, but bad behavior is not always intended to be malicious.
There are different ways of supporting self-injurers. Prevention is the first step. Some people, particularly those with emotion regulation disorders, may benefit from mindfulness and other skills training in a form such as dialectical behavior therapy. Others may benefit from augmentative or alternative communication methods to signal they’re in pain or overloaded. I need a little of both. I practise emotion regulation skills and mindfulness, but sometimes I also need support in the area of communication. For example, I cannot always communicate when I need a staff member to help me with something, be it emotional support or a practical task. Signaling cards, gestures or other alternative or augmentative communication may help in this situation.
When someone self-harms, it is of course important that their physical wounds be taken care of if they cannot do this themself. I find it helps most when someone doesn’t make a big deal out of my self-injuring when taking care of my wounds. Some professionals advocate limiting contact for a day or more after a person has self-injured, reasoning that in that case they have solved their problem already, albeit in a destructive way. Though I find that a bit of distance is good shortly after I self-harm, it is still important to make sure the person is safe from further harm. I do also find that I want to discuss the situation later when I’m calm, so that I can learn what better strategies will help me in the future.