Tumblr user icantaffordadiary has been going through a difficult time. The Oregon-based teenager has a history of depression, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts spanning back to their elementary school days. “I’m going through a particularly rough patch right now, and I’ve been self-harming again,” the Tumblr user tells The Verge via DM. But they’ve found comfort in an unusual place: an app called Calm Harm that aims to help users work through their urges.
Calm Harm isn’t a new app; it launched in 2016 before being rebranded in July 2017. Its Google Play and App Store reviews are filled with people thanking its creators, or sharing their own success stories. But the app has found new popularity among Tumblr users, who are spreading the word to better help others. “Just wanted to let u guys know that there’s an app called calm harm that helps u resist the urge to self-harm,” wrote one user. “Please reblog this if you see it,” said another, who goes by ollzlollz. “This is a free app called calm harm and it literally just saved my life.” In a DM to The Verge, ollzlollz says that they discovered the app through a friend’s reblog.
Calm Harm offers a few simple solutions in the form of distraction techniques. The “Breathe” category, for example, will instruct you to exhale and inhale for a minute at at time, with the option to continue for as long as users need to. “Distract” gives you challenges to choose from, like counting backwards in sevens from 100, or thinking up a name for every letter of the alphabet. “The urge to self-harm is like a wave,” the app explains. “It feels the most powerful when you start wanting to do it.” It likens fighting off these urges like surfing on a wave: once you’ve ridden it out, the urge will fade.
The London-based mental health charity Stem4 created the app with teenagers in mind. It’s focused around Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a cognitive behavior therapy intended manage emotions by methodically learning to recognize, tolerate, and regulate them. Dr. Nihara Krause, the consultant and clinical psychologist who founded Stem4, says she wanted to give young people easy access to treatment. “About 90 percent of people who engage in self-harm began in their teenage years, and the focus of the charity is early intervention,” Krause says in an email to The Verge. Young women are more likely to engage in these behaviors, she says, pointing to a 60:40 gender split.
Calm Harm is not meant to replace therapy, but rather act as a supplemental tool. Users can track the frequency of their urges and see their progress through an in-app log. “This therefore reduces unhelpful coping strategies (which are used because emotions are difficult to tolerate, recognise or express) thereby permitting the learning of new skills,” Krause says. “The main focusses of DBT are mindfulness, emotion regulation, distress tolerance and interpersonal learning.” It also offers users the option to lock their usage behind a password, therefore creating a safe place for them to openly confront their urges.
For many Tumblr users who’ve downloaded the app, it works. “I feel very safe using [Calm Harm],” says icantaffordadiary, who points to its cutesy interface as less intimidating than a professional-looking app. The Tumblr user tells The Verge that the app has been effective for reframing thought patterns. “There’s an activity that tells you to think of nice things people have said about you, and it helped me dissolve any negative feelings that I had towards myself,” they say. “This app helps people by giving them ways to take negative feelings and turn them into something good.”