Self-injury is when someone deliberately hurts their own body in order to cope with negative emotions (like stress, anxiety, and emotional numbness). Most of the time, it is not intended to be lethal (which is known as non-suicidal self-injury, or NSSI). It is also known as self-harm.
Adolescents are most likely to engage in acts of self-harm; and though it is difficult to gauge the prevalence of this complex mental health issue, in part due to the secrecy and stigma that accompany it, nearly one in five teenagers report that they have self-injured.
If you’re concerned that a teen or young adult in your life may be engaging in self-injury, or if you have lived experience with self-injury, here’s what you need to know:
1. People with self-injury experience most often use it to regulate emotions.
People with self-injury experience often use it to manage negative feelings, distract from unwanted feelings, express feelings that are hard to share, or feel something physically if they are experiencing emotional numbness. Because self-injury can be a relied on coping mechanism, and a means of self-soothing, it can be hard to stop. But it is possible with the right coping strategies and a support network.
2. Self-injury does not necessarily indicate that someone is suicidal, but it is a risk factor for suicide.
The relationship between self-injury and suicide is complicated. Most self-injury, especially in teens and young adults, is non-suicidal: The person doesn’t want to die–they just want to feel better. That said, self-injury takes place because someone is struggling. Therefore, self-injury is a risk factor for suicide, and that means it’s essential to know other warning signs.
3. There are many forms of self-injury.
There are many different ways people can hurt their body, but the most common methods are cutting, burning, and severe scratching. People may also self-injure by pulling out their hair or punching, hitting, or biting themselves. Punching objects or starting fights with the overt intent of hurting themselves is a common form of self-injury for men.
4. Self-injury is often hidden.
It is common for people with self-injury experience to hide their behavior because they regard it as personal and want to be in control of what others know. They may also have concerns about being misunderstood or shamed. This makes it hard to detect and can make it challenging for individuals to get the help they need. Warning signs that someone may be self-injuring include unexplained scars, wounds, burns, or other marks on the body, wearing long sleeves or long pants even in hot weather, and avoiding activities that expose skin, like swimming.
5. Respect and compassion are essential if you would like to help someone who self-injures.
People with lived self-injury experience may or may not want to stop. Many have had uncomfortable experiences when disclosing it to others, or when it was discovered, leaving them especially reluctant to talk about it. If you suspect that someone in your life is self-injuring, approach a conversation with respect and compassion. Just knowing that someone will support them and listen to them without judgment can go a long way toward helping them break a pattern and perhaps seek healthier means of coping with their emotions.
For resources on starting and sustaining a conversation with teens and young adults, whether you’re a parent, caregiver, educator, or school administrator, visit The Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery Resources (SIRR) website.
If you have self-injury experience, it’s important to know you are not alone whether you’re thinking about stopping, aren’t ready to stop, or are in recovery. To learn more, explore JED’s comprehensive resource page: Understanding Self-Injury. You can also find additional resources on the SIRR and Self-Injury Outreach and Support (SiOS) websites.
March 1 is Self-Injury Awareness Day, which has been helping people better understand self-injury and support their loved ones for over 20 years. Although Self-Injury Awareness Day is necessary, it is only one day. Our ability to extend support and compassion to those who self-injure is important year-round.