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Self-harm includes any self-inflicted damage to the outside or inside of the body. Self-harm behaviors are not usually the result of suicidal intent; rather, they are a coping mechanism. Many people who self-harm can’t manage painful or unpleasant emotions. When they self-harm, they feel a release or numbing of those emotions. Often people who self-harm explain that the behavior doesn’t hurt; instead, it makes them feel better.

Self-harm is on the rise among teens. Although boys also self-harm, it is most prevalent among adolescent girls. But there are many who begin self-injury as teens and carry it into adulthood.

3 Important Facts

  • An estimated 13-25 percent of teens and young adults have self-harmed at least once. However, many try it once or twice and then stop.
  • Many who self-harm often feel guilt or shame associated with the behavior. They may try to hide the behavior because of this.
  • Over time, self-harming behaviors usually escalate. Much like a drug addiction, a person may need to self-injure more frequently or more intensely to feel the same effects.

Signs to look for

  • Scratching or pinching skin with fingernails to the point of drawing blood.
  • Cutting or carving marks or symbols into the skin
  • Banging or punching objects to the point of bruising or causing damage to oneself
  • Biting to the point of breaking the skin
  • Pulling out hair, eyelashes, or eyebrows with the purpose of hurting oneself
  • Preventing wounds from healing
  • Burning oneself

If you do notice unexplained scratches or cuts or other marks, confront your loved one gently but ask her clearly and directly if she is self-harming. Also, be aware that mood changes such as depression or anxiety may trigger the behavior.

Next steps

Self-harm is a complex issue and there is no definitive cure. However, with supportive relationships, commitment, time, and lots of patience, recovery is possible.

Treatment usually involves helping the self-harming individual face her emotional pain and find healthy coping strategies. One teen found that building caring relationships with friends helped her stop cutting. Feeling more confident in her relationships, she began sculpting clay and painting as well as designing web pages. These creative hobbies kept her hands busy and made her less inclined to cut.

If you are self-harming or you know someone who is, talk with a mental health professional. Therapy can provide tools and resources to help the person stop the behavior and cope with painful feelings in healthy ways.

Common Q and A

Do people who self-harm want to die?

Not necessarily. More often than not, self-harming is used as a coping mechanism. However, because it can escalate, those who self-harm are at higher risk for suicide. This is why it’s important to get treatment sooner rather than later.

What are the most common mental health issues related to self-harm?

Eating disorders, depression, and anxiety are all common disorders that occur with self-harming behaviors. In addition, some who experience trauma may self-harm to cope with the pain.

What should I do if the self-harming behavior is severe?

For those who have a serious addiction to self-harm, inpatient treatment may be required.

Don't people who self-harm just want attention?

No. Most people who repeatedly self-harm are ashamed of the behavior and keep it a secret. They are not just trying to get attention.

How should I respond to someone who self-harms?

Understanding self-harm can be difficult for those who have not experienced it. When dealing with a loved one who self-harms, be sensitive and let them know you’re available to listen to them and to support them. Give them time to open up to you. Don’t react with anger at the behavior. Instead, encourage them to talk about the feelings or situation that triggered the behavior. And, of course, seek treatment from a therapist experienced with self-injury treatment.