A Review of “Freedom from Self-Harm” by Kim Gratz and Alexander Chapman

There is a great deal of misinformation in popular media regarding self-harm. It is important, then, for counselors to find competent and comprehensive literature on the subject. Gratz and Chapman have written a very insightful resource which, while not from a Christian perspective, offers great corrective to many of the common myths about self-harm. Freedom from Self-Harm is a valuable for its dismantling of the common myths surrounding self-harm.

Gratz and Chapman are both professors and psychologists, and each specializes in Borderline Personality Disorder. Self-harm has historically been diagnosed as a major symptom of BPD and so no doubt each has lengthy experience with the behavior. Yet, these authors do a masterful job of moving beyond the boundaries of BPD in their discussion of self-harm. The represent the growing body of professionals who see the disordered behavior as a separate issue, not merely a symptom of BPD. While writing as professionals, with loads of knowledge and experience, and an awareness of present research, they write in an incredibly accessible style. In the words from the forward:

What is particularly impressive about this volume is the way it transforms the most current research findings into a readable text offering a host of practical suggestions. (vii)

The authors have provided, then, a well researched book for the non-academic. In fact, their own ambition with the book is that it would be a helpful resource for those who suffer under their own self-harm, particularly through clarifying the reality of the problem. As they state their goal:

So, why are we writing a book about self-harm? Well, the short answer is the there’s a lot of information out there on self-harm, some of which is inaccurate or even harmful. So, we wanted to pull together the best information to help you get on the road to recovery. (3)

The authors do much to help clarify the issue.

The book is broken down into three parts, with part one being the most helpful. Part one presents readers with an understanding of self-harm. So the Gratz and Chapman give a nuanced definition, drawing distinction between accidental harm and intentional harm; as well as distinguishing between suicide and self-harm. One whole chapter (chapter 2) is devoted to dismantling the common myths. They also speak to issues of psychiatric issues, mental disorders, and the multi-faceted proposes that lie behind someone’s use of self-harm. Biblical counselors won’t agree with all the assessments here – their discussion of serotonin system strikes me as lacking – yet, there is still much in this first part that provides a very helpful description of the problem and provides clarity for counselors as we seek to engage those who are suffering.

Part two directs our attention towards help for self-harm. This chapter provides descriptions of the type of help available, and it is mostly predictable. There are discussions about support groups (and warnings about their dangers), types of therapy, hospitalization, and medication. From a Biblical counseling perspective this will be a disappointing chapter, as its suggested solutions do not have much hope. The chapter on medication in particular demonstrates how ineffective medical aids are to addressing self-harm. While they work for some, there is no conclusive evidence to provide a definitive medical cure.

Part three explores “Coping Strategies for Managing Self-Harm.” While many Biblical counselors will immediately be put-off by the semantics of this position of the book, there are some practical tools that we can adopt from this section of the book. While we want more than merely “coping,” Biblical counselors must recognize that change is about more than information. We must also provide people with practical strategies to fight temptation. This position of the book gives some really wonderful evaluative tools and exercises that can be implemented in good counseling.

Overall I found this to be a very insightful resource. Admittedly its worldview limits both its diagnosis and treatment of self-harm, and yet there is much that Biblical counselors can glean from Freedom from Self-Harm. Biblical counseling literature has yet to produce a very thorough treatment of the issue. There are many smaller booklets and short introductions to the topic that give theological insight and helpful approaches to addressing the issue, but none that give practical tips for restructuring life and fighting temptation. As we await a more robust treatment of the subject from a Biblical perspective we should avail ourselves of resources like Gratz and Chapman’s book.

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