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What is self-harm?

Self-harm, sometimes also called self-injury, refers to behaviours in which a person deliberately physically hurts themselves. Although people of any age can engage in self-harming behaviour, it is more common in young people.

There are many ways in which a young person can engage in self-harm behaviours, but the most common is cutting the skin with sharp objects. Injuries can range from moderate to severe.

Other forms of self-injury include:

  • Burning or hitting yourself
  • Scratching or picking scabs to prevent wounds from healing
  • Overdosing on medications
  • Pulling out your hair, eyelashes, or eyebrows with the intention of hurting yourself

Self-harm can be confusing and difficult to understand for those who have never experienced it. For many people the idea of purposefully hurting yourself seems unnatural, and they have a difficult time discussing the topic. But it is important that we talk about self-harm and try to understand what motivates someone to harm themselves, because not all people do it for the same reason. The best way to help someone stop self- harming is to help him or her address the underlying issues causing the behaviour.

When someone self-harms, it is not the same as a suicide attempt. Young people who self-harm may do so to try and cope with stress or other negative feelings, as hurting themselves physically is often seen as a way to control these negative emotions.

Other motivations for why young people may self-harm include:

  • To reduce anxiety/tension
  • To reduce sadness and loneliness
  • As a distraction from emotional pain
  • To alleviate angry feelings
  • To express feelings of self-hatred
  • As a cry for help from others
  • To escape feelings of numbness

How does self-harm effect young people?

A study by Oxford University found that 1 in 12 young people, mostly girls, engage in self-harming such as cutting, burning or taking life-threatening risks, and around 10% of these continue to deliberately harm themselves into young adulthood

People who self-harm often begin this behaviour in early adolescence, although self-harm can happen regardless of age, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.

Young people who have symptoms of Depression, Anxiety, or low self-esteem are more likely to self-harm. There isn’t one absolute predictor of self-harm, but the following factors increase someone’s risk for self-harm:

  • Past or present physical or sexual abuse or neglect
  • Bullying
  • Past episodes of self-harm
  • Personal losses (e.g. deaths, break-ups)
  • Inability or difficulty coping with the stresses of life
  • High levels of self-criticism
  • Substance use
  • Having peers/ family members who self-harm
  • Mental disorders such as depression, anxiety disorder or borderline personality disorder

Although many young people who self-harm do not have a mental illness, it is more common for someone who self-harms to have a mental illness than someone who does not self-harm. Most often, young people who self-harm are looking for a way to deal with their difficult emotions, and they will continue to self-harm until they learn more effective coping strategies.

Self-harm and suicide

It is common for people to confuse self-harm with failed suicide attempts – but this is incorrect. Self-harm is not an attempt to die. Despite the fact that self-harm and suicide often involve the same behaviours, the key difference is usually the motivation behind the behaviour. Individuals who self-harm typically engage in these behaviours so that they can feel better, not so that they can end their life.

Although self-harm is different than suicide, many young people who self-harm may be depressed or become suicidal over time. Despite the fact that suicide is not the intention of the self-harm behaviour, it is possible for a young person to injure themselves so severely that this results in their death.

Can self-harm be treated?

There are a number of treatment options for self-harm behaviour. Deciding which course of action will best suit your individual needs should be done with the guidance of a mental health professional.

Treatment options for youth who self-harm may include one (or a combination) of the following:

Psychological treatments: Psychotherapy or “talk therapy” works by training your brain to better control your thoughts and emotions.

Medication: Medication may be used for young people who have symptoms of depression and/or anxiety along with their self-harm behaviours. Rather than treating the self-harm directly, medication helps with the underlying issues that are contributing to why someone chooses to self-harm.

Healthy lifestyle: Maintaining a healthy lifestyle with enough sleep, a balanced diet and regular exercise is very important for someone who is struggling with mental health problems.