If self-harm is part of your story, and reading about it is a trigger, please take care before reading the following. Take care of you.
Here is an uncomfortable truth for people in pastoral leadership: people in your church are affected by self-harm, they don’t know where to turn, and they need you.
In the UK, self-harm (intentionally hurting or injuring oneself) accounts for around 150,000 admissions to hospital each year. Young people (especially adolescents), people living in poverty, and LGBT+ people are at particularly high risk,. Researchers and health professionals believe that self-harm is under-reported, because of the level of stigma and shame that people experience when they disclose self-harm to friends, family, and health professionals. So, let’s accept that there are people in your congregation who self-harm, or live with someone who self-harms, or have a child who self-harms, or experience the sorts of mental health problems that make them more likely than average to resort to self-harming behaviours. Have you ever thought about how you would support them, or empower others in the congregation to offer support?
I started self-harming in various ways when I was a young child. I didn’t know there was a name for it then, and it would be years before I really understood what was going on, or sought help. Like many people of faith, I was scared that what I was doing was wrong, or sinful, and that God could never love someone who hurt themselves.
When I first disclosed to a youth worker at church (with the help of a friend) that I was self-harming, I was scared. I was 16, I was just beginning to find a place for myself and my faith in a church that my friends attended, and I wanted to know how to feel better. Unfortunately, the church’s response was not a helpful one. I was led to believe that I was sinning every time I hurt myself, that I didn’t have enough trust in God, and that my best (or only) route to help was to seek out Christian counselling that would help me to deal with my ‘same-sex attraction’ and in the process I would be healed of all symptoms of mental ill-health. I internalised that for years; the guilt and shame were overwhelming.
It took nearly four years to disclose to anyone else in a position of church leadership, when I finally told the pastor of an MCC church I had started to attend as a student. His reaction was calmer, more measured, and emphasised the universal nature of my experiences. Instead of focusing on what was wrong with my response, he talked about how we could deal with the distress underlying it. It was like a weight being lifted from my shoulders – here was a church in which I could be whole. There were many differences between these two responses, but what my experience came down to was this: in one, I felt judged, in the second, I felt loved.
It is a scary thing, to encounter self-harm for the first time. I recently led a group of ministers in a discussion of pastoral responses to self-harm recently, and one described their initial reaction to seeing a self-inflicted wound as, ‘visceral repulsion’. There is something within the healthy self that is repelled by the idea of imposing bodily harm on oneself. It’s hard to grasp; it feels more abstract than an eating disorder, or an addiction, but it’s very real and has its origins in a similar state of mind – needing to do something to overcome or adjust the painful feelings. The apparent severity of what is done (be it wound, burn, or overdose) cannot be conflated with the severity of their emotional distress – the two are related but not immediately analogous.
Spiritually, someone who self-harms is engaged in a process of trying to make manifest soul-pain that they cannot process. They are reflecting their internal pain on their body to try to make sense of it, but in doing so they often feel a deep sense of shame. If the shame is left unchecked, it starts to magnify the other pain and self-loathing that is already present in the individual. As a pastoral carer, you may not be able to soothe the soul-wounds, but you can reassure a child of God that they are loved and cared for, and they do not need to feel shame simply for the way in which they seek to understand and express their pain. There are a number of ways we can do this in pastoral care. The most obvious is to be fully available for people who self-harm, on their own terms. It can be tempting to try and ‘fix’ the problem, but when people have found a way to cope often it is enough just to sit with them in their pain and be there for them in their coping. It may be wise to encourage someone to seek support from a doctor, but you do not need to fix them.
The other thing we can do as pastoral leaders is to take a stand from the front. Talk about mental health – good, bad, and everything in between – in sermons and seminars, and encourage your congregation to see mental health and physical health as aligned. Just as neither cancer nor diabetes are caused by a lack of faith, or spiritual possession, neither is a personality disorder, or severe depression. Preach bravely about the love of God for all who suffer, and dare to name the unnameable. There are people waiting to hear it. There are people who need that reassurance more than you can possibly know.
Today – 1st March – is Self-Harm Awareness Day. There are loads of good resources being shared today to help you to learn more. Here are just a few, in no particular order: