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Self-Harm Affects Adult Women Too

Photograph by Meg O'Donnell.
This article contains material that may be sensitive to some readers.

An estimated 1 in 15 young people self-harm in the UK, the majority of whom are teenage girls. In a population study on self-harm carried out by King's College London researchers on adolescent girls in Australia between 1992 and 2008, it was found that self-harm is a habit that tends to disappear with time. "90% of young people who self-harm as adolescents cease self-harming once they reach adulthood," reported the findings. However, self-harm is not a problem that ends with adolescence, nor one that necessarily starts during it. While there are no reliable statistics for those self-harming above the age of 19 in the UK, the three women we spoke to below, who self-harm as adults, prove that the dialogue around this issue needs to change, and address women of all ages who may be causing serious harm to themselves.
According to the UK's leading mental health charity, Mind, self-harm is the act of inflicting pain on oneself. It’s usually associated with a mental health problem, emotional difficulty or psychiatric disorder, an attempt to numb, control, relieve tension, punish, or just feel. Typically, it takes the form of cutting the skin with sharp objects, burning with candles, matches or cigarettes, and (more common in men) punching hard surfaces.

Sarah* started self-harming at 21. She’s 30 now. She’d been struggling with depression and an eating disorder for some years and one morning, she woke up and decided to remove the razor from an old pencil sharpener and cut herself with it until she drew blood. She described the feeling as "sharp and warm".

This was something entirely new for Sarah, who said the feeling stole over her as a new high and demanding compulsion. She continues: "Sometimes it was a way of controlling some tsunami of emotion that was out of my control, but mostly I liked the actual feeling of pain. Beyond that, it’s hard to verbalise. I knew it was neither normal nor sustainable. It was outside of my understanding. Really, it was like a drug.”

The reasons for adults to start self-harming are multiple. The study by King's College London in Australia concluded that self-harm is typically associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety, antisocial behaviour and high-risk alcohol use – but self-harm can also appear as a coping mechanism for trauma or grief. Louise*, for example, another woman who shared her experiences with Refinery29, started self-harming at the age of 25 after the death of her mother. She echoes Sarah’s sentiments: “It just became a part of my daily routine.”
Jane* started self-harming in her early 30s after the trauma of a sexual assault carried out by her then-therapist. She began to cut her arms and bruise her face in times of great stress. Jane is 64 now and thinks times have changed for the better, but not entirely. “There are groups and support for youngsters, but nothing for a 64-year-old grandmother! I feel like I have been written off.” She still self harms sometime, she says, before adding that she's “become a lot stronger at controlling it.”
Teachers, parents and even peers are often trained in how to look out for signs of self-harm in adolescents, and there exists resources for this online. But for spotting self harm in adults, no such protocol exists. “People notice and they worry, but there’s not that much they can do,” says Sarah. “I don’t talk about my self-harm for fear I will be judged on my ability to parent,” she adds.

The stigma surrounding the issue – compounded by its association with teenagers – can make it more difficult for adults to come forward. This is something Sarah acknowledges: “I’ve always said, and I still say, that if there was a way I could self-harm with no physical consequences, no scars, no dangers or ramifications, nobody worrying about me, I would." Sarah says that, because of this, being an adult who self-harms, ultimately, is very isolating.
Self-harm is difficult to talk about because it is notoriously complex for others to understand. Mind explain this further: “It is sometimes seen as manipulative or attention seeking behaviour by family, friends, or even healthcare professionals. Many people who self-harm feel ashamed, afraid, or worried about other people’s reactions, so often conceal what they are doing rather than draw attention to it."

However, Mind express that patience is crucial when dealing with someone who you know that appears to be self-harming; "this may be the only way the individual self-harming has to communicate about how they are feeling, and what they need is comfort and support."
The women who talked to Refinery29 about their experiences have found help in various forms, including talking to friends and phoning helplines. But as is the case with a lot of mental health problems, the most effective approach is thought to be talking treatments, such as Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, psychodynamic therapy, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (detailed here in Mind's self-harm report).

Often, self-harm can turn out to be a symptom of an underlying mental health problem, rather than the disorder itself. Receiving a diagnosis of Generalised Anxiety Disorder and OCD made Louise feel more equipped to cope with what was going on inside. “[Having a diagnosis] helps me open up to people as well, because they can do their own research," she says. "Friends who have done this can now look out for signs if I ever relapse again.”
"Talking treatments can be short or long-term and involve talking with someone who is trained to listen with empathy and acceptance – usually a counsellor or therapist," explain Mind. "They do not aim to give advice, but offer you the chance to explore your feelings and find your own solutions to any difficulties you are having. Talking things through with another person can help you start to make positive changes. It can also help you feel supported to have someone else accept and understand your experiences."
If you’re struggling with self-harm, get in touch with your GP. You can find help and advice on or The Samaritans helpline is 116 123.

*Names have been changed