What is self-harm?
Self-harm or self-injury is when a person hurts themselves on purpose without wanting to die by suicide. Self-harming, when done to your own body, is also referred to a Non-Suicidal Self-Injury (NSSI).
Self-harming behaviours can happen at any age, and are more common among youth than any other age group. The behaviour often starts in the preteen or early teen years. Self-harming behaviours happen equally in boys, girls, non-binary youth, and in the LGTBQ+ community. Common self-harming behaviours include:
- scratching to the point of breaking the skin
- burning the skin
- picking at skin or wounds
- hitting themselves to the point of bruising or breaking bones
- taking more of a medicine than the prescribed dose
- eating overly spicy (hot) foods
- wearing very tight or painful clothing
- sometimes playing high-risk sports
Self-harming behaviours may happen often, sometimes every day, or may only happen once. Some people may engage in self-harm to help deal with tense feelings and help manage distress and emotional pain. Each person may have different reasons for self-harming. These behaviours don’t solve the reasons that lead people to self-harm, but can offer a person a sense of relief from how strong their emotions feel.
When someone self-harms, they may accidentally hurt themselves more than they intended to, or the area they injure may become infected. People who self-harm need to be talked to in a supportive, non-judgmental manner so they can consider other ways of coping and self-management.
Reasons people self-harm
People may self-harm to:
- cope with their feelings (such as fear, being depressed, anger, feeling anxious, guilt, self-loathing, or feeling lonely)
- feel pains
- manage stress
- distract themselves from overwhelming emotions and difficult life situations
- use their skin to communicate with others about a problem they can’t express in words
- punish themselves
- get a sense of control over their body
- experience a release of chemicals (endorphins) that make them feel better and increases their tolerance to pain
- feel something or to decrease what they’re feeling
Does self-harm lead to suicide?
Most people who self-harm do not want to die. Their self-harm is used to deal with intense emotions and feelings. A few people who practice self-harm do so with suicidal intent.
Although self-harming is different than suicidal behaviour, the risk of suicide is still a concern. While self-harm is not a suicide attempt, it can be a major risk factor for suicide. Those who self-harm may be at a higher risk for suicide attempts than those who don't self-harm.
If someone is self-harming, it may be helpful for them to see a knowledgeable professional who can offer them support and assess if there is a likelihood of suicide.
What can I do if I know someone who self-harms?
If you know a person who self-harms, it’s normal to feel frustrated, confused, or scared. Self-harm is a sign that a person is in distress. Approaching the person with compassion may help. Here are some things you can do to help:
- offer support
without judging or criticizing
- ask them what you can do to help
- let them know you want to listen to them and hear how they are feeling
- keep your own emotions under control. Do not over-react.
- learn about self-harming behaviour and why someone might do this. Understanding the behaviour makes it easier to talk about it.
- ask the person what feelings they’re trying to change, or who or what in their environment they’re trying to communicate with
- having a caring, honest conversation can help them to consider using more positive coping skills
- ask if he or she is considering suicide by asking the questions below
Questions to Ask
- Are you thinking about suicide?
- Do you have a plan?
- Do you have a way to carry out your plan?
Listen to the Person
- If the person answers yes to any of the questions above, get help.
- Events that are well planned are more likely to happen.
- Use your instincts about whether the person is at risk of suicide right now.
- If the person is planning suicide right away, it is an EMERGENCY: call 911 or take the person to the nearest Emergency Department.
- If the person is suicidal, but the risk isn’t high right now, contact a
crisis centre in Alberta.
- If the self-harm injuries are severe, help them get medical attention.