Trigger warning: This blog post mentions self-harm and self-injury.
Self-harm (also known as self-injury) is the act of harming your body deliberately. It is usually done in a private setting through sharp objects, hitting or punching, pulling out hair, or placing hot objects on the skin. Self-harm is not meant as a suicide attempt, but an unhealthy way of expressing emotional pain.
Self-injury occurs most often in teenagers and young adults, and approximately 10% of American teenagers are thought to engage in various self-harming behaviours.
What are the signs and symptoms of self-harm?
- Cuts, scratches, and scars
- Burn rashes
- Consistently wearing long sleeves or pants, even in hot weather
- Relationship difficulties
- Emotional instability
- Helplessness, hopelessness, or worthlessness
What causes a young person to self-harm?
During the teen years, young people face peer pressure, conflict with parents and teachers, and multiple life changes. Although there is no single cause, self-harm is usually triggered by becoming upset and unable to cope with intense emotions. An individual may resort to self-injury in an attempt to reduce severe anxiety, distract themselves from painful emotions, feel in control, or punish themselves for something.
How can I help someone I know who self-harms?
If you have a friend who is self-harming, it’s important to avoid judgement and seek understanding. Even if their actions don’t make sense to you, be supportive and don’t dismiss or ridicule their behaviour. Suggest they reach out and talk to their doctor or a counsellor.
If you are a parent and your child or teen is self-injuring, it is important not to respond negatively by shaming your child or becoming upset with them. Instead, be sensitive, have empathy, and be sure to contact their doctor or a mental health professional as soon as possible. Medication can help treat an underlying mental illness, such as depression or anxiety. Inpatient or intensive outpatient programs are available if a safe environment or more intense treatment is needed.
How can a counsellor help someone who self-harms?
A counsellor will help a client who self-harms by finding out their reasons for hurting themselves and emotional difficulties they’re experiencing. Talk therapy will help address and manage underlying issues and the counsellor will teach healthy coping skills. They will encourage socialization and work on social skills, as most young adults who self-harm feel lonely and disconnected from others.
If you or someone you know has injured themselves severely, please call 911 immediately.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the Distress Line at 780-482-4357 (HELP).
Blog post by Vanessa Amundson, Voliunteer.
Olsson, Regan. (2020). How to Help a Friend Who is Self-Harming. https://www.bannerhealth.com/healthcareblog/teach-me/how-to-help-a-friend-who-is-self-harming.
Psychology Today. (2019). Adolescence. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/adolescence.