Approximately 14% to 24% of young adults have engaged in some type of self injury.
- American Academy of Pediatrics
Know the facts.
It is important to remember that self-injury typically is not intended to result in death. Self-injury can be a coping mechanism to manage feelings, to detach from anguish, to feel something or to show internal pain. Many terms are used to describe nonsuicidal self-injury, including self-harm and self-mutilation.
Cutting of the skin using a sharp object is the most common form of nonsuicidal self-injury among young people, but there are many other types of self-injury. While for most young people self-injury is a coping mechanism, it can result in life-threatening injury (e.g., blood loss and infection from untreated cuts or burns) or crisis.
While not a suicide attempt, self-injury can signal an underlying concern. Some people believe that self-injury is a way for someone to seek attention. If a person is seeking attention, they are needing attention.
Some youth say that self-injury acts as a “necessary release” from pressure or distress. A person may engage in nonsuicidal self-injury for any number of reasons, including the need to:
- Relieve stress or emotional pain
- Punish self
- Feel something other than despair
- Feel pain and make internal pain visible
- Displace pain (substitute physical for emotional)
- Gain power and control over one’s traumatic experiences
- Call for help
- Avoid suicidal thoughts
Self-injury is often done in secret without anyone else knowing. Some of the examples can include:
- Stabbing or cutting the skin with a sharp object (80%)
- Burning the skin with hot objects (matches, hot water, cigarettes)
- Self-poisoning (e.g., drugs or alcohol)
- Punching objects to create bruising or bleeding
- Pulling hair out (large amounts)
- Interfering with the healing of wounds (picking the skin or sores)
Note: Some forms of self-injury can be culturally acceptable (e.g., body art, piercings and scarification)
Signs to look for in a young adult engaging in nonsuicidal self-injury:
- Blood stains on clothes
- Wearing long sleeves in hot weather (to cover up injuries)
- First Aid supplies (band aids or bandages) being used excessively
- Following social media sites that promote self harming behaviors
Because self-injury is often done in secret, you may not be able to see any signs. Let the person know that you are there for them - without judgment - understanding that self-injury can be a way for some people to cope with difficult emotions and stress. Trying to stop someone from self-injury should not be the focus of support. It is better to express concern and help them explore healthy ways to relieve stress such as mindfulness and effective communication.
One way to support someone is to become educated about nonsuicidal self-injury and to encourage the youth to seek professional help. Family members and friends can play an important role with youth who are willing to disclose their self-injury. Let the young person know that you have noticed the injuries and are concerned for their well-being. Listen and respect what the person has to say about their injuries calmly and without judgement. Studies show that feeling close to at least one adult can be the most powerful protective factor in a young person’s life.
- What is nonsuicidal self-injury?
- What are some reasons to self harm?
- What are some examples of self harm?
- What can you do to support someone who is engaging in nonsuicidal self-injury?
- How do you think stigma might affect a person who is engaging in nonsuicidal self-injury?