The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines self-harm as violence directed at oneself to intentionally cause injury or death. A common example of this is known as cutting, where someone causes wounds to themselves with a sharp object, such as a knife. However, many forms of self-harm exist, and many reasons why someone may feel the need to harm themselves. Sometimes these kinds of self-harm are easy to hide and overlook, which can put the people harming themselves in danger.
It’s important to recognize what it means to self-harm, why people may feel compelled to harm themselves, and what can be done to prevent and stop these behaviors. By becoming more aware of self-harm, more lives can be saved, which one day may include yourself and those that you love.
Who Is Most at Risk?
Teenagers and young adults are currently more likely to engage in self-harming behaviors compared to other age groups. However, self-harm can occur in any age group, especially in young children with a developmental disability or disorder, such as autism. Anyone may engage in self-harming behaviors at any point in their life, especially if they experienced any of these risk factors.
Individuals considered most at risk are those with:
Exposure to Suicide
Those that had someone they know display suicidal behaviors, or attempted suicide, are more likely to self-harm. This is especially true in those with family members who have died by suicide. People who have attempted suicide are also more likely to harm themselves again.
Mental Health Disorders
Some mental health disorders, such as depression, can cause someone to be at risk. A person may feel that the only way they can cope with their symptoms or “feel” anything is to engage in self-harm.
Trauma and Stress
People who are living with constant stress or have experienced a traumatic event may feel as though they need to self-harm to cope. This is especially true with teenagers, who often have to juggle school, puberty, and a stressful home environment at the same time.
People who abuse substances, such as alcohol or drugs, are at higher risk of self-harm. Abusing substances is a form of self-harm in itself, but some drugs can also lower inhibitions and cause someone to consider harming themselves in other ways.
Access to Weapons and Other Lethal Items
This mainly includes weapons such as knives or guns that someone can use to harm themselves. However, this also can include common household items that can be deadly when used incorrectly, such as poisons for pests, chemicals, and prescription medication.
Signs of Self-Harm
When people harm themselves, they do it to relieve some type of negative emotion that they cannot cope with. Anger, loneliness, hopelessness, and numbness are all reasons why someone may attempt to find relief in self-harm. However, self-harm is not a healthy way to cope with an issue and can be hard to stop once started.
Self-harming behaviors tend to start small. Sometimes they can start with plucking a hair or two when stressed or scratching yourself with your nails. What makes these dangerous, however, is how quickly they can escalate. Scratching may not be enough, and someone may escalate into using a knife to make more significant cuts. It could mean skipping a meal one day and then soon skipping all of them.
If it’s causing direct physical and emotional harm, it counts as self-harming behavior. These can include:
- Cutting, biting, or scratching yourself
- Burning yourself via fire, hot water (scalding), or chemicals
- Punching or striking yourself with your hands or other objects, which can cause bruising, cuts, and broken bones
- Pulling or plucking hair off your head and body
- Starving yourself or binge eating or purging
- Attempting or having thoughts of suicide
- Inserting objects into bodily openings to cause pain and harm
Self-harming is dangerous because not only do they escalate into worse harm, but it can sometimes result in suicide. Many people do not start self-harming with the intent to end their lives, but if left alone, it can quickly get out of control.
How to Find Treatment for Self-Harm
For those who are currently self-harming or know someone who is, it’s vital to find help right away. If you are in direct danger of hurting yourself, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. You can also seek help by contacting your local mental healthcare facility. They employ mental healthcare professionals that can walk you through the steps you need to find treatment.
If the self-harm is severe enough, residential treatment may be recommended. Residential treatment is when someone stays in a hospital or mental health care facility to receive around-the-clock care. This allows someone to receive treatment in a safe environment and away from the most common triggers for self-harm.
The most common kind of treatment for self-harm is psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy. This type of therapy helps someone address the underlying issues that cause them to want to self-harm. Once someone can confront these problems, they learn how to cope with them healthily. This way, someone can deal with negative emotions without the urge to harm themselves.
If you know someone who is self-harming, encourage them to seek professional help. For advice on how to encourage someone to seek help, contact your local mental healthcare facility. They can give you advice and resources needed to help someone seek professional care.
Remember to not judge someone on why they may want to self-harm. This can cause someone to hide their problems, which can lead to escalating behavior. Remind them that you care about them and that you want them to be healthy and happy. Having support can be the difference between someone getting help and someone continuing to struggle.
Nobody deserves the pain of harming themselves, and that includes yourself and those that you love. Life does get better.
Self-harming is a symptom of many types of mental health disorders. Sometimes this behavior can get out of control and cause great harm to oneself, sometimes even leading to suicide. It can be difficult for someone to stop self-harming behaviors once they become routine. Here at Acera Health in Costa Mesa, California, we offer treatment options for many kinds of mental health disorders. Not only can we help someone learn how to stop self-harming behaviors, but we also treat the underlying issue that caused it. Everyone deserves quality care, and there is no shame in asking for help when needed. If you or someone you love is struggling with self-harming behaviors or a mental health disorder, call (949) 647-4090.
Melody is a highly skilled proactive clinical administrator, with more than 17 years of experience serving the community in the behavioral health field.
Her clinical management career started in 2011 as a compliance manager and program director. In 2018, she became an executive as chief clinical officer (CCO). She is a seasoned licensed marriage & family therapist.