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Why Don’t We Talk about Self Harm?

SBB has a regular weekly staff meeting that is semi-mandatory for all of our staff members. Semi-mandatory within SBB means that if you can’t make it, let us know. That is a pretty broad guideline and although we have discussed stressing how important it is…nobody flips out if you miss a meeting. Or even two. The “ask” is to let us know you aren’t coming. The day before…an hour before…5 minutes before. Whatever - just check in.

We have three questions for everyone to answer at the weekly meeting.

1: Some silly, non-invasive, non-personal, “what if” ice breaker question,

2: What are you working on this week?

3: How can we support you?

Pretty simple, right?

Our meetings can be goofy at times and we head regularly off onto, what our executive director calls “sidequests”, on a pretty regular basis. We have been known to discuss the weird habits of chickens. We’ve discussed what the hell Justin Beiber was up to. And we rant about the inaccessibility of really good peanut butter. Our meetings are fun, informative and we have a hard boundary about going over 50 minutes.

So when one of our senior staff members had missed a couple meetings without any notice, even though they had been communicating with everyone literally within the hour preceding the meeting, their absence was noticed. Not just by our directors, but by everyone else too.

Check Ins followed. There was no improvement. An alarming angry group text from the missing-in-action staff member to our staff lit up like a Christmas Tree and our ED immediately called the staff member to find out what was going on. We know from experience that attempts to sabotage relationships with people we were closest is was a really good indicator that there might be some indications of “self harm” and intentionally isolating themselves and “disconnecting”, from what is a relatively - in comparison to many work environments - supportive network of people who really care about our community, our organization and our people.

The concept of self-harm is surrounded with the stigma of being nothing more than a “cry for attention” and has been inaccurately portrayed in movies, TV shows, and other pop culture outlets. It has often been something our intersecting communities deal with on a regular basis and we know the obvious signs of self harm - but are we really paying attention some of the lesser known signs of self harm that can really lead to painful interpersonal and professional difficulties that are both challenging to talk about and even harder to overcome.

Lets learn more about the feelings behind self harm as well as some self harming situations and how to approach them with compassion and assist ourselves and our community members with “getting back on track!”.

What is Self-Harm?

Simply put, self-harm refers to an individual hurting themselves on purpose. This can be seen in people from all walks of life. Many of our community based organizations and the folks we work with may have experienced trauma or be dealing with intense emotions, but that is not always the case. Sex Workers, Survivors and people who are involved in Crisis Response, Activism with Criminalized Spaces, Harm Reduction Movements and all the complicated intersections of various Human Rights efforts are traumatized, not only by the circumstances they are trying to remedy, but the activism and advocacy part as well!

- A few examples of self-harming behaviors include but are absolutely not limited to:

- Cutting, scratching, or burning skin

- Hitting or punching oneself, and even other people

- Inserting needles or other objects under skin

- Pulling hair

- Picking at the skin and/or real or imagined skin blemishes or wounds

Other less noticeable forms of self-destructive behavior may not be as visible but are no less harmful!

- Not “showing up” at confirmed meetings, events or activities

- Impulsive activities that are outside of the way they normally act (notice we didn’t say “normal” in the context of what society views as normal) but instead on what is normal for that individual person

- Breaking or harming friendships and other kinds of interpersonal or work relationships

- Sabotaging their own life or sabotaging someone else's life

- Sabotaging their own work or someone else's work

- Emotional outbursts, erratic activity levels and impulsive behavior

- Increases or changes in substance use (self medicating)

- Withdrawing from relationships with friends, family or community

- Imposing themselves into interpersonal or work relationships they don’t really want to be in

- Expressing feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness in a context that may not be easily identified as hopeless or worthless

Individuals at risk for developing patterns of self harm include those from marginalized communities who face a number of intersecting oppressions, individuals with existing mental health disorders, and those who have been subject to a form of abuse throughout their lives.

Although self-harm can happen with suicidal thoughts, it is typically defined by hurting oneself without suicidal intent. These injuries - both physical, emotional and psychological - can be serious, even life-threatening, and can lead to really serious crises. Mental health care can sometimes help address the painful emotions they are trying to navigate but these resources are extremely difficult to access and are often simply unavailable because our systems for this kind of support are broken. And Sex workers and Survivors and Activists DON’T ASK FOR HELP AND SOMETIMES DON’T EVEN RESPOND TO OFFERS OF ASSISTANCE.

Symptoms of Self Injury

A person who is self-injuring may experience feelings of guilt and shame and attempt to conceal their actions. As a parent, friend or coworker, your gut feeling that “something is off” may be the first warning sign you notice.

Many of us know someone who is notoriously clumsy or prone to bruising.

But if your friend or coworker or fellow social justice warrior is frequently showing signs of injury without explanation, or with explanations that are questionable, it is important to pay attention while engaging the individual with care and respect of boundaries. Self-injury should never be dismissed as a cry for attention or a “phase” they will grow out of or “get over.”

Gently connecting the person in need to a mental health resource or other decolonial means of therapeutic transformation can help them establish personalized coping skills for intense emotions and reduce the risk of a serious injury. It is important to recognize that not all mental health resources are helpful for those of us in criminalized or stigmatized spaces, and identifying decolonial resources that help navigate dehumanizing impact of systemic oppression, imperialism, and colonialism is critical.

How to Help Someone Who is Self-Harming

1. Process YOUR feelings about Self Harm and establish a sense of balance and non-judgement upon approaching the individual.

People commonly feel overwhelmed by the discovery that someone they know may be self-harming. You may experience shock, fear, anger, confusion, sadness, or even disgust. For this reason, it is important to process your own feelings before initiating a discussion. Avoid acting out in the heat of the moment as much as possible.

To help you achieve a calmer mindset, consider journaling or going for a walk before you approach your loved one. If you decide to do some research online, take time to decompress and digest everything you have read before starting a discussion.

2. Create a safe space.

Before you have a serious conversation with ANYONE about someone else's behavior or situation, do a quick scan to determine whether or not you are in an appropriate setting. Offer them the privacy of meeting in a space THEY feel is safe, a quiet area with minimal distractions, such as their room. We all know that in spite of our constant desire to create safe spaces, this is a real challenge for folks in criminalized industries, gig economies and within stigmatized populations.

There are other verbal and nonverbal elements of creating a space that feels “safe” and respected, as well as specific judgemental behaviors that YOU need to avoid. To help create the MINIMUM kind of safe space where THEY feel safe and free to express what they are going through, don’t do and of these things:

- Don’t yell or raise your voice excessively - and remember that yelling is perceived differently by everyone. In fact, studies have found that the more intrusive the subject, the softer the voice tone should be in order to be effective.

- Don't make threats, accusations or ultimatums - even if they are denying or excusing or trying to explain specific instances you are concerned with

- Don’t be distracted, as in don’t check your phone

- Don’t center the conversation on yourself - this is not about you - this is about someone you care about!

- Don’t ever “mock” feelings or behaviors which you do not understand - like trying to use “examples” of what is concerning you

3. Gently, gently, gently express your concern and remember that it is NOT about YOU!

Try to maintain a calm and gentle approach. They are more likely to engage in a conversation where they do not feel provoked or challenged or “called out."

Remember, the ultimate goal of this conversation is to discuss the feelings and emotions they are struggling with. While it is typically helpful to mention you are worried and coming from a place of love, try to avoid centering the conversation entirely on your feelings. Regardless of where they are in their crisis, they definitely don’t have the emotional capacity to take on your feelings of guilt, shame and sadness.

4. Offer nonjudgmental support and a listening ear.

It is important to let them know you are someone they can trust. If they are willing to discuss their experience with self-harm, do not be afraid to let them guide the conversation. Your role is to be an active listener and to listen to their perspectives without judgment — even if the conversation is uncomfortable.

If they are unwilling to open up, try to use gentle and encouraging prompts, such as, “How are you doing?” and “How can I support you right now?” Or alternatively, just shut up and let them process their own feelings.

5. Make a plan to move forward together.

Seeking help can be a humbling, scary and even traumatizing experience, and they may feel scared about the road ahead, but also just in general! Make sure they know you will be there to support them throughout the process no matter what road they take, and offer to be a part of the process only if they want you to be.

And just so you know -

#FunFact about Chickens:

It’s not the feather color that tells you what color the egg shell will be. It’s the color of the hen’s earlobes! Hens with red earlobes will lay brown eggs, and hens with white earlobes lay white eggs. Although the color of the eggs may differ, the nutritional content or flavor does not.

Justin and his wife Hailey celebrated their 5th wedding anniversary in September by sharing an instagram carousel of Back To School Photos and she really rocks a pair of eyeglasses!

The #BestPeanutButter comes from Hawaii’s North Shore Goodies and comes from a coconut and banana recipe and rumor has it that it goes great with their Guava Jam. Some of us don’t care for peanut butter and prefer the Lilikoi Butter which has a yummy, rich taste of fresh lilikoi finely whipped to a smooth consistency with honey, eggs and pectin.

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