Self Harm

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

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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.

Motivations for why young people may self-harm include:

To reduce anxiety/tension

To alleviate angry feelings

To escape feelings of numbness

To reduce sadness and loneliness

To express feelings of self-hatred

As a distraction from emotional pain

As a cry for help from others

How does self-harm effect young people?

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 however 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 or substance use

Past episodes of self-harm or high levels of self-criticism

Personal losses (e.g. deaths, break-ups)

Inability or difficulty coping with the stresses of life

Having peers/ family members who self-harm

Mental disorders such as depression, anxiety disorder or borderline personality disorder

Does self-harm relate to mental illness?

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 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 take your life. Despite the fact that self-harm and suicide often involve the same types of 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 lives. 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.

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