After my previous two articles on self-injury, the question naturally arises: “What do we do about self-injury? How do we help our fellow students who struggle with it?” I have a few ideas to offer as to how to love your neighbor struggling with self-injury.
First and foremost, do not try to find the fix. As previously stated in my first article, “There are as many reasons for self-injury as there are students who struggle with it.” Each individual needs a different approach to recovery. We must enter into the relationship with a learner mindset rather than as someone bringing the solution to the problem. There are, however, many overlapping themes in recovery that can be helpful for most.
We must cover the individual with prayer. Far too often, prayer becomes a last resort; we need to see it as our most powerful weapon. God is our comforter, healer, strength, and shield. He is the redeemer that brings us out of the muck of our sin.
Start a habit of coming to your knees before acting with your own strength. Pray for ways to talk with them and for ways to love them well. As soon as you know or suspect a person is struggling with self-injury, begin praying for them to find freedom in our good Father.
In addition to prayer, the next step is offer to help the student bring their struggle into the light. Self-injury is often wrapped up in shame that fights to keep the pain secret. Students find it extremely difficult to talk about their struggle because they fear the reactions they may get from their peers.
One Covenant senior said the most unhelpful thing anyone could ever do was to react to her wounds with disgust, over exaggeration, or shame. If you see evidence, or someone tells you about their self-injury, react with grace and the forgiveness we find in Christ. Remind the student that when they are under the blood of Christ; they are no longer under the hold of sin.
Bringing sin to light is not easy. It can be awkward, and it can be quite painful. But if both parties are entering into the conversation with love, the outcome can be one of great healing and can strengthen the relationship.
If we are to be a community that spurs one another towards Christ, we need to be a community willing to point out sin patterns in our friends. But of course, this must be done from a posture of humility, all the while monitoring the motives of our actions.
Many people overlook signs of self-injury because they assume it is a method to get attention or pity from others. While some people may self-injure simply to get attention, it is far more likely for self-injury to be a cry for help because their pain and shame has silenced any other mode of communication they know.
As Chaplain Grant Lowe said, “Self-harm is a harmful mode of communication, but it is communication nonetheless.” Regardless of motivation, each instance of self-injury must be addressed and treated seriously.
Self-injury is a coping mechanism to deal with deeper emotional pains. As the struggle comes into the light, ask about the reasons behind the injury. Why is life so challenging that the person is turning to self-injury to cope?
Make room for meaningful conversations, but also know those conversations require intimacy of relationship, and that takes time to build. It is important to recognize that the student may not want to talk about the deeper hurts with you. Don’t take it personally. If the person does not want to talk to you about the self-injury, don’t walk away. Respect their privacy, but also respect that they are a child of God in pain. They need to be talking to someone. Offer to help them bring up the issue with another friend, adult, or counselor. If they refuse, go to a trusted adult and express your concern for the student.
It is important to recognize our limits when loving those struggling with self-injury. Even if a friend is willing to talk with you, it is a good idea to bring a trusted spiritual leader into the conversation. Self-harm can escalate quickly and can often become very dangerous to the student.
I have known students who did not feel comfortable sharing about their self-injury with a professional counselor. Counseling isn’t for everyone, but mature wisdom and guidance is. This is not an issue students ought to handle by themselves.
If someone does start counseling, that does not mean you are in a place to step out of the relationship. Healing the deep emotional pain that is causing the person to self-injure is a long, challenging road. Students need friends walking alongside them in the everyday battles in addition to the help from a counselor or therapist.
Ask the friend how you can love them best, but don’t stop there. Many students express frustration because they don’t know what is helpful. Even if they cannot offer any suggestions, be purposeful about seeking out ways to love them. Send them a note in the mail, ask them to lunch, invite them to sit with you in chapel.
Many times students fall into patterns of self-injury because they have not been taught how to feel and cope with stress in a healthy way. Talk with the student to help them create positive coping patterns. Offer to take part in prayer, hiking, working out, baking, painting, or other helpful activities with them.
We must make our campus a safe, caring place to admit struggles with self-injury and other sins. We need to work to respond to people in need, loving them, and always affirm their place at the table of the King, all the while remembering that we too are sinners in need of a merciful Father.