It was 70 degrees today in Denver. People were outside in shorts and t-shirts, welcoming summer with open arms and exposed skin.
I passed one girl and noticed cuts up and down her arms.
I recognized them immediately. They were the end product of self-injury.
And seeing them broke my heart.
It reminded me that people are hurting. And people are cutting themselves to deal with the pain or the pressure or the loneliness.
An estimated 12–23% of adolescents today self-injure. Nearly ¼ of the adolescent population.
That number is staggering.
So what can we do? How can we respond?
As someone familiar with the territory of both cutting and healing (going on 5+ years of being self-injury free), I have some ideas.
Here are six ways to help someone who is cutting:
It’s as simple as that. Listen to what the person who self-injures is saying. Listen to his pain. Listen to her story. Helping someone starts by opening up your ears.
2. Try to understand.
You don’t need to understand completely why the person is cutting. If you haven’t self-injured, you might never completely understand. And that’s ok. The point is that you try. Show some effort. Ask questions. Try to understand where he or she is coming from, what they are feeling, what they are experiencing. You can’t help what you don’t even sort of understand.
3. Treat them like a human.
There’s a real fear among people who self-injure of being treated like a crazy psycho animal if people find out about their cutting, and it’s preventing people from seeking help. They don’t want to be pumped with pills or shipped off to a psychiatrist or labeled as a freak. Self-injury is not crazy. It doesn’t make a person a freak. It’s simply a response (albeit a harmful one) to our broken world. So don’t treat someone who cuts like they are crazy or demented or weird. Treat them like a normal, sane human.
4. Treat them like an individual.
Not everyone who cuts does so for the same reason. Every story is unique. Something that helps one person might not help another. So helping someone needs to be extremely individualistic. Listening and trying to understand are great ways to treat someone like an individual.
5. Express love.
Tell them you love them. Take them out for ice cream or to a concert or to a movie. Play basketball with them. Tell them that their self-injury struggle doesn’t make you think less of them or love them less. Show them they are important to you. Be extravagant with your love.
6. Encourage them to get professional help.
Encourage them to see a counselor. If that seems scary or intimidating, offer to go with them the first time. Help them find a good one. A good counselor is a miracle worker, in my opinion.
The truth is, you can make a difference in the life of someone who self-injures. Essentially it comes down to just being a good friend.
So be a good friend. Listen, and try to understand. Express love. Treat them like a normal human being.
These six tips aren’t a magical formula to bring healing. But they will help. Maybe they will play a small role, maybe a big role, it doesn’t matter. In some way, they will help. In some way, they will be part of the story of healing.
Healing is possible, and we can help healing become a reality.
Do you have any other thoughts on how to help someone who cuts? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments.
(P.S., Stay tuned for some things NOT to do when trying to help someone. Coming later this week.)