I remember how fascinated I was when I first learned of the semi-colon tattoo project some years back. People would tattoo semi-colons on their wrists, fingers, legs, ears, etc. This small symbol represented their courage, resilience, and strength in overcoming addiction, depression, suicide, and self-harm.

In grammar, a semi-colon is used to connect two independent sentences that are similar. Instead of completing the stream of thought in the first sentence, you add another different sentence that is closely related in meaning or thought. The two are separated by the semi-colon. Example: I love traveling; visiting different places makes me happy.

“A semicolon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to. The author is you, and the sentence is your life.” – Project Semicolon

When it comes to self-harm, the semi-colon is a symbol of hope and encouragement that your story isn’t over yet despite how tough it may all seem right now. Self-harm can feel like the only viable way to cope during difficult and stressful times. It can even bring strange comfort going through the physical pain to shift focus from the emotional pain. But there’s always more to you and your story.

I’m not saying you should go get a semi-colon tattoo but if you can, by all means, do it. This post is meant to bring awareness to self-injury, healthier ways to cope and how you can extend compassion and empathy to people who self-harm. I think the semi-colon is a beautiful reminder of the struggle to push through, so think of this post as one big semi-colon.

What is self-harm?

The American Psychological Association defines self-injury as, “A condition characterized by deliberate self-inflicted harm that isn’t intended to be suicidal. People who self-harm may carve or cut their skin, burn themselves, bang or punch objects or themselves, embed objects under their ski, or engage in myriad other behaviors that are intended to cause themselves pain but not end their lives.”

Statistics show that;

  • About 2 million Americans self-harm. 17% of people will self-harm in their lives.
  • Self-harm is most common with teenagers with 15% of them actively doing it.
  • People who self-injure themselves are three times more likely to try suicide.

Anyone can self-harm despite their age, gender or race. The stereotypes and judgment around self-harm, as a means of seeking attention are far from the truth. People who self-harm aren’t necessarily suicidal. Self-injury is also not a mental illness but a coping method for emotional distress. It is linked to mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, borderline personality disorder and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

When we go through a deeply disturbing or stressful event (trauma), we either cope with it in healthy or unhealthy ways. Sometimes it can overwhelm us to a point where we feel helpless because of the intensity of the emotions that come with it… like anger, frustration, fear and sadness. Some people end up self-harming themselves as a way of dealing with these complex emotions that they don’t know how else to release. For others who experience emotional numbness, self-injury gives them a sense of “feeling something”.

Self-harm is often accompanied by shame and guilt because it’s a clear physical indication of struggle – as the scars remain. Judgment from others makes it worse; “Why would you hurt yourself like that?” “Are you going through a phase?” “Are you trying to kill yourself?” “Stop trying so hard to seek attention.” This lack of empathy can discourage help-seeking behavior.

How to respond to self-harm

  1. Assess urgency: What needs to be done right away? It could be first-aid, emotional support, therapy, or going to the hospital. This depends on the severity of the injuries. Be very gentle in the process. This event can also affect you so make sure you also get support from others.
  1. Immediate responses; Don’t panic, shame, judge or talk ill. Be kind with your words and actions. Gently inquire about what’s happening and actively listen to understand. Don’t demand lengthy explanations or reasons for self-harm. Guide the conversation by creating a safe space for release, “How can I support you at this moment?” “Do you need me to hold space for you to talk about how you’re feeling?” 
  2. Don’t punish: Self-harm is not an indication of indiscipline or disobedience. It’s a cry for help, understanding, and support. Don’t ground them, take away their privileges or shame them to others if you find them self-harming. Take the opportunity to talk about what they may be going through.

Self-care for self-harm

Emotion-focused coping mechanisms work best to help adjust feelings and emotional responses to the problem when it comes to self-harm. Here are some examples;

Coping mechanisms to feel

  • Hold/Chew on ice or take a cold bath
  • Eat sour candy/hot pepper
  • Snap rubber bands

Coping mechanisms to release tension

  • Journal with a lot of curse words
  • Scream your lungs out
  • Break or rip something apart like pieces of paper

Coping mechanisms to distract yourself

  • Watch repeats of your favorite shows
  • Take a walk out into nature
  • Color on adult-coloring books

Remember the semi-colon tattoo? If that’s too permanent for you, take a pen and draw a semi-colon on your body – or draw anything else that comes to mind. Let those drawings make you proud of using an alternative method to cope. You can rub/shower them off later and there won’t be permanent reminders of the pain. What matters is that you’re taking control of your emotions and not letting them win the day. Our phone lines are always open if you need professional help to overcome self-harming because you can! It’s not a life sentence. Your story isn’t over yet. With guidance, you will learn how to cope in healthier ways over time.

If you know someone who self-harms or you encounter anyone who is self-harming, let your compassion lead you. How you respond to them makes all the difference. Choose kindness always.

“Other times, I look at my scars and see something else: a girl who was trying to cope with something horrible that she should never have had to live through at all. My scars show pain and suffering, but they also show my will to survive. They’re part of my history that’ll always be there.” ― Cheryl Rainfield