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Self-Harm and Youth

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:

  • cutting
  • scratching to the point of breaking the skin
  • biting
  • 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.

Seek Help

  • If the person is planning suicide right aw​ay, 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.​

Current as of: March 30, 2020

Author: Addiction & Mental Health, Alberta Health Services