Self-harm - an inside view

I recently visited Gartree Prison in Leicestershire. While I'm waiting I always like to read the prison newspaper 'Inside Times'. The features and prisoner's letters page are always interesting. An article on 'self-harm' really caught my eye. It was written by a current inmate and made a lot of sense to me. I will try to capture the essence of it here.

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The writer explains their thought process as to why they self-harm. Often misunderstood, or written off as attention-seeking. Neither is it an expression of anger but still, the question is there as to exactly why. I see it as an outcry of trauma or extreme distress that is being felt in that moment. , not an illness as such. Nothing else in that situation is logical.

A common misconception might be that it is only those who suffer from anxiety or depression who self-harm. Certainly, it is more prevalent in younger people, particularly teenagers. I try to put myself in the position of a prisoner, locked away in a small cell for hour after hour. The risk factors inside prison must be multiplied with no outlet and support network.

There is a purpose behind every act of self-harm. There are feelings of insignificance, worthlessness and not having a voice which come across strongly. Sometimes there are no feelings present at all, just a total sadness encompassing everything. At times like this, it feels that there is no other option for the writer.

There is a realisation there too of the dangers. But they are an irrelevance when the need arises to harm. The pain has meaning, to feel something is better than to feel nothing perhaps? To the outsider and the individual, it’s nonsensical, but it gets them through that critical time. Afterwards comes the period of self-reflection and expressions of guilt and responsibility.

I found reading the whole article incredibly moving. Self-harm is widely misunderstood. The inner turmoil and trauma must be so extreme to drive a person to such harmful actions. Making any sense of it is difficult. I have heard it said that it is very much about control, or having control over something. Another way of looking at is that it externalises the pain sitting internally. It could be looked upon as a coping strategy of a kind, albeit an unsafe one. The physical pain helps to deal with the emotional numbness.

This link contains the full transcript of the letter.

Inside almost every prison there is a ‘listeners scheme’ which is supported by The Samaritans. Designated volunteers receive extensive training to provide peer support to fellow prisoners. They are de-briefed regularly by the Samaritan volunteers. Since the scheme was first set up over 30 years ago it has proved to be extremely successful.   

Outside of prison, talking treatments can be very helpful through therapists, who listen with empathy and acceptance. The GP can refer to the Community Mental Health Team (CMHT). The Samaritans are available 24 hours to listen and support. Tel 116 123 free.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Northampton, Northamptonshire, NN3
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Written by Peter Arthur, Dip.Couns, MBACP (Reg) | Person Centred Counsellor
Northampton, Northamptonshire, NN3

I am a Person Centred Counsellor based in Northamptonshire. I work Online and also specialise in 'Walk and Talk' Therapy.
I have been in Private Practice for two years, after previously working as Lead Counsellor for a local Charity.

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