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What to Do When Your Roommate Tells You They Self-Harm

In someone’s toughest of times, the most important thing you can do is be there for them.

About 17 percent of college students report engaging in some form of self-harm. That means if you are on a floor of 40 residents, odds are high that as many as seven or eight self-harm or have in the past. Of that number, some may reach out for help, while others suffer alone. Less than 7 percent of that number choose to seek medical help for their wounds. The majority of college students who self-harm do so in silence.

Stigma surrounding self-harm can hurt the person as much as the pain itself, leaving college students like you and I unlikely to tell someone they hurt themselves in case they are perceived as weak, unstable or selfish.

If your roommate or close friend trusts you enough to tell you they self-harm, this person is revealing a part of themselves that they don’t usually show others. They may be in significant pain, and although you care about them, you might not know the best way to help them. You may not even understand why they are hurting themselves.

Please note that I am not a professional in any way, shape or form. I am familiar with the pain and feelings behind self-harm, and I know how much someone who listens and cares can mean for someone struggling with it, but I am not any sort of authority on the matter and should not be treated as such. Take these thoughts not as professional advice, but as a conversation from one college student to another about what helped in their situation involving self-harm and could help in yours.

Understand Why

You don’t necessarily have to know the reason your friend is self-harming (unless they feel they need to tell you). What you do need to understand is that self-harm is a complex issue and that the reason people do it is complicated.

Some engage in self-harm to release emotions inside themselves they don’t know how to express otherwise. Others self-harm as a way to punish themselves and somehow relieve the pain they feel inside. Some might self-harm as a result of bullying, poor body image, sexuality/gender identity concerns, domestic violence, a personal tragedy or an entire litany of other reasons. Self-harm isn’t so simple as wanting to hurt themselves. The person doing it does so because they are in pain and, for whatever reason, they are expressing it through injuring themselves.

Over my freshman year in college, I struggled with self-harm after several years of little issue. During this time, I was coming to terms with life as someone who is transgender and religious. The guilt and loneliness was so bad at times that self-harm felt like the only way to release them. Hurting myself was the only way I knew to express how difficult my situation felt.

Self-harming wasn’t a healthy way to cope with pain, but it was how I coped. People have different stories for why they self-harm, and none of them are so simple as wanting to cause physical pain to themselves. If your friend or roommate struggles with self-harm, make it clear that you are trying to understand and would be willing to talk if they wanted to have a conversation about it.

Try Not To Judge Them

If they’re self-harming, they probably already feel a lot of guilt about it. Adding to the guilt will not help and might worsen the problem. When I struggled with self-harm, I felt so bad about doing it that I hurt inside even more and thus harmed more frequently. Feelings are complicated when it comes to this matter.

Your roommate needs to shed light on their struggle. Shame only creates more darkness. Instead, try to continue seeing them as the person they were before. Everyone has scars and feels pain; just because theirs are visible doesn’t make them any less in need of healing.

Listen to Them

If they’re willing to talk about it, you might try listening to them. Sometimes talking helps relieve tension and bottled-up feelings, and talking to a friend can be a healthy alternative to self-harm. Not only that, but talking to them might help them believe that someone cares about them and wants to help them through this.

Some of the most meaningful conversations I’ve had with friends and family happened as trying to find an alternative to self-harm. If this person told you they self-harm, they must put a lot of trust in you and care about your relationship deeply. Listening to them work through their feelings could help them relieve their emotions in methods other than self-harm.

Encourage Them to Seek Help

Self-injury is hard to overcome alone because of the intense feelings that cause it. Letting your roommate know that you’re there is so important, but make sure that, if they feel comfortable, they reach out to others as well. Encourage them to visit their university’s counseling center where a counselor might help them process the feelings surrounding self-harm and help them find better ways to cope.

Suicidal thoughts and self-harm do not always coincide, but if your roommate also feels suicidal, you might want to direct them to a crisis line (university or state-run) to use in case their feelings overwhelm them so they can stay safe. If your roommate is hurt or needs medical attention, call emergency immediately.

In situations where you think they might not be able to keep themselves safe, you may want to let someone who can help know, perhaps a hall advisor or university counselor.

What to Do When Your Roommate Tells You They Self-Harm
Image via USC Engemann Student Health Center

Be There for Them

You may worry you’re not doing enough for your roommate, but one of the most meaningful things you can offer is your companionship. Spend time with them and let them know that if they need to talk, you are there for them.

If you’re scared for their situation and you don’t know what to do, just know that compassion and openness goes a long way. Let them know that you love them and still want to be around them. If you do that, your support goes a long way.

Also, sometimes having a friend or roommate who is hurting takes a toll on you. Remember to take care of yourself and know your limits.

Writer Profile

Andy Winder

Brigham Young University

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