Remember to check out the links to articles on other sites.

Some issues of the ‘Can’t Shout, Can’t Scream’ zine are available online.

Bill of Rights for People Who Self-Harm

Copyright 1998-2001 Deb Martinson, Original location

An estimated one percent of Americans use physical self-harm as a way of coping with stress; the rate of self-injury in other industrial nations is probably similar. Still, self-injury remains a taboo subject, a behavior that is considered freakish or outlandish and is highly stigmatized by medical professionals and the lay public alike. Self-harm, also called self-injury, self-inflicted violence, or self-mutilation, can be defined as self-inflicted physical harm severe enough to cause tissue damage or leave visible marks that do not fade within a few hours. Acts done for purposes of suicide or for ritual, sexual, or ornamentation purposes are not considered self-injury. This document refers to what is commonly known as moderate or superficial self-injury, particularly repetitive SI; these guidelines do not hold for cases of major self-mutilation (i.e., castration, eye enucleation, or amputation).

Because of the stigma and lack of readily available information about self-harm, people who resort to this method of coping often receive treatment from physicians (particularly in emergency rooms) and mental-health professionals that can actually make their lives worse instead of better. Based on hundreds of negative experiences reported by people who self-harm, the following Bill of Rights is an attempt to provide information to medical and mental-health personnel. The goal of this project is to enable them to more clearly understand the emotions that underlie self-injury and to respond to self-injurious behavior in a way that protects the patient as well as the practitioner.

  1. The right to caring, humane medical treatment

    Self-injurers should receive the same level and quality of care that a person presenting with an identical but accidental injury would receive. Procedures should be done as gently as they would be for others. If stitches are required, local anaesthesia should be used. Treatment of accidental injury and self-inflicted injury should be identical.

  2. The right to participate fully in decisions about emergency psychiatric treatment, so long as no one’s life is in immediate danger

    When a person presents at the emergency room with a self-inflicted injury, his or her opinion about the need for a psychological assessment should be considered. If the person is not in obvious distress and is not suicidal, he or she should not be subjected to an arduous psych evaluation. Doctors should be trained to assess suicidality/homicidality and to realise that although referral for outpatient follow-up may be advisable, hospitalisation for self-injurious behaviour is rarely warranted.

  3. The right to body privacy

    Visual examinations to determine the extent of injury should be performed only when absolutely necessary and done in a way that maintains the patient’s dignity. Many who SI have been abused; the humiliation of a strip-search is likely to increase the amount and intensity of future self-injury while making the person subject to the searches look for better ways to hide the marks.

  4. The right to have the feelings behind the SI validated

    Self-injury doesn’t occur in a vacuum. The person who self-injures usually does so in response to distressing feelings, and those feelings should be recognised and validated. Although the care provider might not understand why a particular situation is extremely upsetting, she or he can at least understand that it is distressing and respect the self-injurer’s right to be upset about it.

  5. The right to disclose to whom they choose only what they choose

    No care provider should disclose to others that injuries are self-inflicted without obtaining the permission of the person involved. Exceptions can be made in the case of team-based hospital treatment or other medical care providers when the information that the injuries were self-inflicted is essential knowledge for proper medical care.

  6. The right to choose what coping mechanisms they will use

    No person should be forced to choose between self-injury and treatment. Outpatient therapists should never demand that clients sign a no-harm contract; instead, client and provider should develop a plan for dealing with self-injurious impulses and acts during the treatment. No client should feel they have to lie about SI or have therapy terminated. Exceptions to this may be in hospital or emergency treatment, when a contract may be required by hospital legal policies.

  7. The right to have care providers who are not afraid of SI

    Those who work with clients who self-injure should keep their own fear, revulsion, anger, anxiety, etc out of the therapeutic setting. This is crucial for basic medical care of self-inflicted wounds but holds for therapists as well. A person who is struggling with self-injury has enough baggage without taking on the prejudices and biases of their care providers.

  8. The right to have the role SI has played as a coping mechanism validated

    No one should be shamed, admonished, or chastised for having self-injured. Self-injury works as a coping mechanism, sometimes for people who have no other way to cope. They may use SI as a last-ditch effort to avoid suicide. The self-injurer should be taught to honour the positive things that self-injury has done for him/her while recognising that the negatives of SI far outweigh those positives and that it is possible to learn methods of coping that aren’t as destructive and life-interfering.

  9. The right not to be automatically considered a dangerous person simply because of self-inflicted injury

    No one should be put in restraints or locked in a treatment room in an emergency room solely because his or her injuries are self-inflicted. No one should ever be involuntarily committed simply because of SI; physicians should make the decision to commit based on the presence of psychosis, suicidality, or homocidality.

  10. The right to have self-injury regarded as an attempt to communicate, not manipulate

    Most people who hurt themselves are trying to express things they can say in no other way. Although sometimes these attempts to communicate seem manipulative, treating them as manipulation only makes the situation worse. Providers should respect the communicative function of SI and assume it is not manipulative behaviour until there is clear evidence to the contrary.



I am reading the articles about SI. They say mostly young girls do this. Well, I am a woman aboout 50. With a history of having been sexually abused. I do SI.

I am in no way proud of it. But I feel like “it’s mine” and I keep it a secret.

I have an appointment with a psychiatrist this week to be ‘evaluated’ for BP. I am afraid if he asks if I do SI. I don’t want to tell him, but I don’t want to lie either. I am afraid if he knows, I will be put back in the hospital. (I was there 2 years ago, and went through ECT treatments.) I am really afraid of my family finding out, only because they have no idea. I feel so ‘sick’ inside, but put on this front so my family won’t be worried.When I do SI, I usually use an exacto knife. It makes the cut very quick and clean. And the more it bleeds, without needing any stitches. I like it. How can I be so sick and yet, pretend to be all right?


This is to P.N. — the woman around 50 who does SI. I am in my late 40s. I have hurt myself since I was very young (4 or 5). I wrote a bit of my story here for the first time last week. I have to say that my sadness, my feeling of being so alone in the world for so many years made it all so awful. Now, I don’t feel quite so bizarre. I can face it. I can look at what I do from a new perspective and realize that this is what has kept me sane all these years. Not insane, you know? I’ve lived a fairly ‘normal’ life. My therapist is amazed. My scars are too real to explain away — but they have kept me going. My SI is not an art form, a fad, a statement for others to see. It is my coping device, used at nearly ‘un-cope-able’ times. It’s a part of me that has given me strength. Not that I like it, but I have to accept it. Maybe now, because I have, I can move on and leave it behind.


Permanent location: