What helps people who self-injure?
Medications (mood stabilizers, anxiolytics, antidepressants, and some of the newer neuroleptics) have been tried with some success. There is no magic pill for stopping self-harm (naltrexone, though effective in people with developmental disabilities, doesn't seem to work nearly as well in other patients). Many therapeutic approaches have been and are being developed to help self-harmers learn new coping mechanisms and teach them how to start using those techniques instead of self-injury. They reflect a growing belief among mental-health workers that once a client's patterns of self-inflicted violence stabilize, real work can be done on the problems and issues underlying the self-injury.
This does not mean that patients should be coerced into stopping self-injury. Any attempts to reduce or control the amount of self-harm a person does should be based in the client's willingness to undertake the difficult work of controlling and/or stopping self-injury. Treatment should not be based on a practitioner's personal feelings about the practice of self-harm.
Self-injury brings out many uncomfortable feelings in people: revulsion, anger, fear, and distaste, to name a few. If a medical professional is unable to cope with her own feelings about self-harm, then she has an obligation to herself and to her client to find a practitioner willing to do this work. In addition, she has the responsibility to be certain the client understands that the referral is due to her own inability to deal with self-injury and not to any inadequacies in the client.
People who self-injure do generally do so because of an internal dynamic, and not in order to annoy, anger or irritate others. Their self-injury is a behavioral response to an emotional state, and is usually not done in order to frustrate caretakers. In emergency rooms, people with self-inflicted wounds are often told directly and indirectly that they are not as deserving of care as someone who has an accidental injury. They are treated badly by the same doctors who would not hesitate to do everything possible to preserve the life of an overweight, sedentary heart-attack patient.
Doctors in emergency rooms and urgent-care clinics should be sensitive to the needs of patients who come in to have self-inflicted wounds treated. If the patient is calm, denies suicidal intent, and has a history of SI, the doctor should treat the wounds as they would treat accidental injuries. Refusing anesthesia for stitches, making disparaging remarks, and treating the patient as an inconvenient nuisance simply further the feelings of invalidation and unworthiness the self-injurer has. It is useful to offer mental-health follow-up services; however, psychological evaluations with an eye toward hospitalization should be avoided in the ER unless the person is clearly a danger to him/herself or to others. In places where people know that seeking treatment for self-inflicted injuries are liable to lead to mistreatment and lengthy psychological evaluations, they are much less likely to seek medical attention for their wounds and thus are at a higher risk for wound infections and other complications.
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