It can be incredibly difficult to watch someone you love to engage in self-harm behaviors. Although challenging, there are treatments available for self-harm. With support and intervention from a trained mental health professional, there is a good chance of recovery.
What is Self-Harm?
Self-harm is also known as self-injury, self-mutilation, or self-abuse. It occurs when someone impulsively injures themselves but without intent to kill themselves.
Self-harm can take place in many different ways. This can include skin cutting, headbanging or hitting, or burning oneself. Others might scratch or tear their skin, pull out hair, keep wounds from healing, or intentionally overdose on medication without trying to kill themselves.
Who is at risk for self-harming behaviors?
Self-harm is more common than you might think. Studies show that up to 4% of adults and between 17%-35% of all college students engage in some form of self-harm.
Individuals who self-harm may experience:
- Low self-esteem
- Difficulty handling their feelings
- Fear of relationships
- Difficulty with interpersonal conflict
- Poor functioning in work, school, or at home.
Why Do People Self-Harm?
Self-harm is a type of coping mechanism. Some individuals state that it helps them find relief from negative emotions. Others say it relieves boredom or makes them feel better. Some individuals self-harm to resolve an interpersonal difficulty or conflict.
Other reasons for self-harm include:
- Feeling empty or lonely
- Feeling over-or understimulated
- Not being able to express their feelings
- Feeling misunderstood or desperate to communicate their anguish to someone
- Fear of intimate relationships
- Anxiety about adult responsibilities
- As a call for help or attention
Signs of Self-Harm
Many individuals who engage in self-harm attempt to hide the evidence. They might wear long sleeves, even in hot weather. When confronted, they may come up with excuses for their injuries.
Signs of self-harm include:
- Unexplained frequent injuries, including cuts and burns
- Attempts to hide scars or marks
- Makes excuses about the source of injuries
- Wears long sleeves or long pants, even in hot weather
How to Help Someone You Suspect of Self-Harm
It can be difficult to talk about self-harm with someone you love. If you have concerns about life-threatening injuries like overdose or uncontrolled bleeding, or if you believe there is a risk of suicide, it’s important to seek immediate help from 911 or a suicide hotline (for example, 1-800-273-TALK).
The most important thing you can do to support your loved ones is simply to listen and be supportive of their mental health struggles without judgment. You don’t need to have all the answers.
It’s also important to realize that a single conversation won’t fix the problem. Recovery can be a long process, so it’s important to be patient and not to expect immediate changes right away.
If you suspect a loved one of self-harm, you can encourage them to find support from a trained therapist with experience in self-harm behaviors. Self-harm is a mental health disorder and needs treatment from a trained professional.
Treatment for Self-Harm
Treatment for self-harm generally involves a combination of therapy and medication.
Some patients are treated on an outpatient basis. If the self-harm behavior interferes with daily life or if the individual engages in life-threatening self-harm behaviors, the individual may need inpatient hospitalization at a mental health treatment center.
It’s also important that individuals receive mental health rehab for other disorders when appropriate, which may include support for substance abuse disorders, eating disorders, trauma, abuse, or family therapy.
Self-harm prevention requires the support of a trained professional who can work with the individual to develop coping strategies and a treatment plan to handle the underlying cause of self-harm behaviors.
Individuals must receive help for their self-harm behaviors. Even if an individual does not intend to commit suicide, they may cause more harm than intended through their self-harm behaviors. Others may eventually feel desperate about their lack of control over the behaviors, leading to true suicide attempts.
Help is Available
If you or a loved one are suffering from mental illness or thoughts of self-harm, please contact The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357.