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  • Kara Kohnen

Demystifying Self Harm

What is it?

Self-harm refers to injuring or hurting yourself on purpose. Self-harm is a symptom of extreme emotional distress. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says up to 30 percent of teenage girls and 10 percent of boys say they have intentionally injured themselves. The rates rose over the past 10 years, especially among girls. Since 2001 it has increase 166 percent in girls aged 10 to 14 and 62 percent in girls aged 15 to 19. The majority of this involved the most common form of self-harm, cutting.

Why?

It is an unhealthy coping mechanism to deal with emotions. Self-harm releases feelings of pain, tension, and anxiety. Self-injury creates a false way to feel more in control of emotions, or teens use it to distract themselves from their emotions or life circumstances. In addition, teens desire to punish themselves for what they see as their faults or flaws. Others describe the physical pain of self-harming as better than numbness and emptiness that come with depression. It can bring a temporary feeling of calm and a release of tension. Frequency and longevity vary but in some case, self-harming can turn into a compulsion. At higher risk are those who have experienced trauma, neglect, or abuse. While it is not considered a method for suicide, self harm is associated with an increased risk of suicide. Thus, it is critical cutting and other forms of self-harm must be addressed with professional treatment as soon as discovered.



Peers, Social Media, and Self-Harm

Teens usually self-harm in private. They may also use self-injury as a way of bonding with others. Teens with friends who self-harm are more likely to try it themselves. Teens seeking relief from painful emotions can find information online about how to engage in different types of self-harm. For a teens at risk, it’s important their online activity is monitored.


Social media actually decreases happiness in teens. Teens’ increased use of technology over the past decade may be linked to the increasing prevalence of self-harming behavior. Consumption of digital media takes away from time spent on healthier activities: sleeping, exercising, or spending time in nature. This reduces positive methods for coping with stress. Teens who spent more time on non-screen activities, such as face-to-face social interaction, sports and exercise, homework, and print media, were less likely to report mental health issues.

What Are the Types of Self-Harm?

One of the most common of the different types of self-harm is cutting, using a knife or other sharp object. Teens cut themselves as a kind of ritual that leaves patterns on the skin. Others:

  • Scratching or biting the skin

  • Burning their skin with lit matches, cigarettes, or other hot, sharp objects

  • Hitting or punching themselves or the walls

  • Piercing their skin with sharp objects

  • Pulling out hair

  • Picking at scabs and wounds

  • Poisoning

  • Inserting objects into the body

  • Overdosing on drugs or drinking to excess

  • Exercising to the point of collapse or injury

  • Getting into fights in which they are likely to be hurt

  • Banging head or body against walls and hard objects

  • Driving recklessly

  • Having unsafe sex

Self-Harm Symptoms

Parents and other adults who work with teens should learn the red flags related to different forms of self-harm. Here are some signs and symptoms that may indicate that a teen is self-harming:

  • Scars or scabs

  • Unexplained cuts, scratches, bruises or other wounds, often on the wrists, arms, thighs, or torso, which they explain as the result of accidents

  • Keeping sharp objects on hand

  • Wearing clothes that cover up the skin, such as long sleeves or long pants, even in hot weather

  • Impulsive and unstable behavior

  • Expressing feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness

  • Difficulties with relationships

  • Blood stains on bedding, clothing, towels, or tissues

  • Having sharp objects in their possession, including razors, safety pins, nail scissors, knives, needles, shards of glass, or bottle caps

  • Spending long periods of time alone, often in the bathroom or bedroom

  • Increased isolation and social withdrawal

  • Avoiding situations in which they need to reveal skin, such as swimming or changing in a locker room.



Complications of Self-Injury

Self-injury can cause dangerous and even fatal health consequences. Furthermore, it can have a continued negative impact on mental health.

Possible complications of self-harm include:

  • Increased shame, guilt, and low self-esteem

  • Wound infections

  • Permanent scars or disfigurement

  • Broken bones

  • Isolation that results in losing friendships

  • Higher risk of major depression, drug and alcohol addiction, and suicide.

What to Do

Encourage treatment as the most important goal. Parents or guardians should get professional help for their child or teen. Teenagers whose friends are struggling with self-harm should suggest that they talk to their parents, a school counselor, a teacher, or another trusted adult.Family members and friends can support loved ones in a variety of ways.

Treatment

It needs to address the root causes of the self-destructive behavior. Treatment for anxiety or depression may be necessary. Other underlying issues might include: low self-esteem, dysfunctional family dynamics, or other mental health conditions. In addition, teens learn new coping mechanisms for dealing with difficult circumstances or painful emotions. Treatment provides them with different ways to stop self-harm behaviors by substituting other, healthier behaviors, such as breathing exercises and compassionate self-talk.

At Grow Through Life Counseling we use:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) helps teens to identify and modify thought and behavior patterns. Therefore, they learn how to shift their outlook from the negative toward the positive and how to identify triggers for self-harm.

  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) helps teens acknowledge that they are using self-harm to cope with underlying issues. Subsequently, they develop ways to modify this behavior. In addition, they address the root causes of self-harming.

  • An increasing number of studies show that Mindfulness meditation can help support mental health. Meditation encourages us to witness our emotions from a distance rather than getting caught up in them. Therefore, teens learn to cope with their emotions and manage distress without self-harming.

  • Replacement with Positive Coping Skills Effective strategies that can help teens replace self-harm with positive experiences. Moreover, these different ways to stop self-harm will also help teenagers build self-esteem and real connections.

Other things which can help:Social support: The more support we have, the more resilient we are. Teens who self-injure will benefit from finding people they trust, who care about what they’re going through. Their support network can include family, peers, guidance counselors, and mentors.

Unplugging: Unfortunately, teens who self-harm sometimes find websites that support or glamorize this behavior. Unplugging as much as possible is important for teens who engage in different forms of self-harm. Moreover, reducing digital media activity will support mental health overall.

Exercise: Research shows that exercise supports mental health by increasing the body’s production of endorphins. These are the brain’s “feel good” chemicals. Moreover, doing a physical activity can increase a teen’s feelings of mastery and self-confidence. As a result, they feel less of an urge to self-harm.

Take Control: For some people, getting the facts and making plans can help counteract stress and negative emotions. If teens have a big project looming, they can create a schedule that will keep them on track. If they’re facing an unknown situation, they can do some research so they know what to expect. Therefore, teens are able to reduce feelings of being out of control. Thus, self-harming behavior also goes down.

Creativity: Writing, art, music, and dance can all serve as ways to express emotions. For example, writing about what’s creating stress and anxiety in your life helps you to identify outside stressors. Moreover, it can help you pinpoint what’s going on internally.


In conclusion, self-harm is not the same as a suicide attempt, it can be life threatening. Therefore, take these emergency actions if someone is actively self-harming:

  • Do not leave the person alone.

  • Remove anything that could be used in a suicide attempt, including firearms, alcohol, drugs, razors, or other sharp objects.

  • Call the US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

  • Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.

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