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Self-harm should not be an indication that the individual is suicidal. Suicide and self-harm are very different. While they're both inflictions of pain, and sometimes true that the individual self-harming may later make a forever decision, generally the individual engaging in self-harming behaviors does not wish to end their life. They're using self-harm as a way to cope with the stressors in their life. Whereas, individuals who attempt suicide have the intent to end their life due to their pain and suffering.

Understanding Teens and Self-HarmI have talked about teens’ mental health and suicide prevention since 1992. It is an honor to be trusted to speak on teens and mental health in high school assemblies and to school communities all over the world. There is a high probability that one will come across topics related to self-harm or self-injury when talking about teen suicide prevention and teen mental health.

As a teenage mental health speaker, I educate teenagers in various ways. One of the ways is through a full school assembly. The other way is collaborating with counselors and having a one-on-one sessions with students. Through my training, I have noticed that one-on-one sessions are more successful because the teenagers are comfortable sharing their emotional pain and life experiences with me and how they cope with life’s challenges.

Teen Suicide Prevention

If you’re interested in teen suicide prevention visit Jeff’s online course for school communities: parents, teachers, counselors, teens, and school administrators. (Click Here)

What is Self-Harm

Self-harm is a non-suicidal act of deliberately harming or injuring one’s body.

Types of Self-Harm

Many people think that self-harm is limited to burning and cutting oneself. However, this is not the case since self-harm includes other activities such as pulling out bodily hairs, punching walls, ingesting toxic substances or sharp objects, head banging, self-medicating, and even reckless behavior.

Would you include vaping as self-harm? Absolutely. The same way you would include alcohol, pot, pills, etc.

Reasons Teens Self-Harm

There are various reasons why teenagers engage in self-harm. Some of them include the following:

  • Emotional disconnect or detachment from or not being validated by their parents. Self-harm makes them feel alive inside and helps confirm their existence in reality.
  • Peer pressure. The desire for teenagers to be accepted by their peers will lead them to conform to group norms and expectations, such as self-harm. Research has shown that individuals will conform to their peers’ norms, behaviors, and attitudes because they lack self-esteem.
  • For girls, self-harm may be used as a coping strategy with overly demanding parents, especially in situations where the father is the dominant voice when it comes to discipline and decision-making.

Three Common Reasons Teens Self-Harm

During my one-on-one interaction with teenage students, I have discovered that one of the main reasons why teens engage in self-harm is because they lack meaningful relationships. For example, some students have claimed that they don’t have friends. Secondly, they feel they disappoint themselves, their parents, friends, and teachers. Thirdly, the teens feel they are a burden and do not want to speak up. My advice to teenagers on this matter is to speak up. Otherwise, the issues (negative feelings, depression, trauma, and brokenness) they fail to speak up about will end up hurting them later in life.

My job is to be a trusted adult providing a safe place for them to share and start the conversation. In other words, my job is to provide a safe environment for teenagers to open up. Similar to filling the gap between their pain and getting the help they need and encouraging them to find that trusted professional so they can deal with whatever it is that is driving them to cope in an unhealthy manner.

Unfortunately, most parents of these teenagers lack the capability to provide trust or a safe environment where the children can express their emotions, which pushes them away. Teenagers need an adult or a parent who provides them with love, support, validation of their thoughts and feelings, and trust. Do not think of how you will respond as a trusted guardian, adult, or parent. Take the time to create a safe space with an open heart and show you are proud they have come to you, and they are talking.

Self-injury may be an attempt to:

  • Cope or decrease severe emotional distress or anxiety and provide relief.
  • Provide a distraction from painful emotions through physical pain.
  • Feel a sense of control over the body, feelings, or life situations.
  • Feel something — anything — even if it’s a physical pain when feeling emotionally empty.
  • Express internal feelings in an external way.
  • Communicate feelings of stress or depression to the outside world.
  • Punish oneself.

Self-Harm: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The first step I take when a teenager says that they are self-harming is not to get alarmed or react. Instead, I thank them for expressing their emotions and trusting me. It takes a lot of courage for a teenage student to trust me and express their emotions.

The Good in Self-Harm

(I am not saying self-harm is healthy, but from the side of intervention, self-harming teens are crying for help, wanting to be heard.  Therefore, don’t react and think it’s a suicide attempt.)

Many people, including teachers, are shocked when I say self-harm has benefits. Indeed, there are various benefits to self-harm. For many of these teens, cutting or burning themselves numbs unpleasant thoughts. It helps take the emotional pain away, leaving them in control of the physical pain that replaces emotional pain. The other benefit of self-harm to student teenagers is that it gives them fast-acting relief from emotional distress and pain. Physical pain stimulates the body to release endorphins. Endorphins block nerve cells from receiving or transmitting pain signals.

Essentially, self-harm among teenagers is a coping strategy for teenagers with emotional pain. These teenagers need help, but they do not know the best way to seek this help since they are afraid of being judged, not being heard, not being validated, and parents not reacting, to mention a few.

The other reason teenagers fail to speak out is that they do not know exactly how to articulate what they are feeling and why they are acting out in an unhealthy manner. It is good that teenagers have emotions. Otherwise, a lack of emotions is a concern among teenagers since it is abnormal. Most teenagers are surprised that I do not disappoint or judge them. Instead,

I take away their guilt and shame. Therefore creating a safe environment for them is an essential step in ensuring that teenagers open up.

When the teenagers open up to me, I tell them, “You know this isn’t a healthy way of coping, right?” The teenagers agree with me. I then show the alternative ways of coping with the emotional distress that they are going through. I then encourage them to seek professional help.

It is important to note that one cannot help a teen who self-harms if one does not know they need help.

The Bad in Self-Harm

One of the major reasons teens are turning towards self-harming behaviors is the endorphin effect they receive. Endorphins are secreted into their bloodstream when teens cut or burn themselves. They experience a numbing or pleasurable sensation which is bad because if they don’t get the professional help they need this pleasurable feeling will continue to make them feel better. They’ll continue self-injury, making seeking help difficult the longer they’re not learning healthy coping skills.

Self-injury can cause major complications, such as:

  • Worsening feelings of shame, guilt, and low self-esteem.
  • Infection, either from wounds or from sharing tools.
  • Permanent scars or other permanent harm to the body.
  • Worsening of underlying issues and conditions, if not properly treated.
  • Severe injury that could lead to death.

The Ugly in Teen Self-Harm

Self-injury is not usually a suicide attempt. However, it indicates an existing problem, which means if this emotional problem is not treated promptly, the risk of suicide also increases. Additionally, it is essential to note that the patterns of injury when a teenager is distressed may increase the risk of suicide. For example, self-inflicted wounds may happen regularly and, at times, increase blood loss, increasing the risk of suicide. Additionally, some injuries may be fatal, increasing the risk of suicide. To reduce the risk of suicide, an individual or teenager with emotional and mental health problems must seek professional help.

Prevalence of Self-Harming Teens

Self-harming behaviors among teenagers are prevalent across all cultures and social and economic levels. It is hard to estimate the prevalence of self-harming behaviors between males and females. Generally, there are more young females engaged in self-harming behaviors than men.

Teen Self-Harm: Knowing When To Get Help

Most guardians and parents do not know that their children are engaging in self-harming behaviors because they do it in private or with their friends. Many people confuse self-decoration with self-harm. There is also a big difference between self-decora

ting and self-harm. It seems a popular fad among teens today to use body piercings and tattoos as a form of self-decorating. Teens who self-harm seek relief from emotional pain; they are not self-decorating.

Signs and Symptoms that Self-Harm is a Problem with your Teen:

  • Cuts, scratches or burn marks on their arms, legs, and abdomens.
  • Excessive rubbing of an area creates a burn.
  • Finding knives, razor blades, box cutters, and other sharp objects hidden in the teen’s bedroom.
  • Keeping sharp objects or other items used for self-harm on hand.
  • Regularly locking themself up in the bedroom or bathroom following a bad day at school, negative encounte
    rs with peers, and family conflicts for lengthy periods
  • The family physician, a teacher, or other adult observes cut or burn marks or that the teen appears to be regularly removing bodily hairs
  • The teen’s peers cut or burn themselves.
  • Reports from a sibling indicating that they found blood-encrusted razors or caught the teen in the act of self-injuring
  • Scars are often seen appearing in patterns.
  • Excessive rubbing of an area creates a burn.
  • The teens often wear long sleeves or long pants to hide self-self-harm, even in hot weather.
  • Frequent reports of accidental injury.
  • Relationship difficulties with others.
  • Impulsive, intense, and unexpected behaviors and emotions change quickly.
  • Talk of helplessness, hopelessness, or worthlessness.

Professional Treatment for Self-Harming Teens

The most effective treatment strategy for self-harming behaviors among teenagers is family therapy. A skilled family therapist can help improve family communication, teach conflict-resolution and problem-solving skills, and help foster more meaningful and closer relationships between parents and teens.

The other treatment strategy is support groups that teach teenagers effective coping and skill-building skills. The coping skills that the teenagers obtain from these groups will help them manage negative emotions and thoughts and cultivate healthier stress management activities.

How Can Teen Self-Harm be Prevented?

One of the effective strategies that can be used to reduce self-harm is having a healthy relationship between teenagers and their parents. In this regard, parents should spend more time with their teenagers and their family. There are various ways to improve this relationship can be improved. Some ways include encouraging open communication, compassionate listening, and showing love and support without judgment between parents and teenagers.

When to Seek Help for Self-Harm

Take all signs seriously. If your child or a student you know is self-harming, even if you think it is a minor way of self-harm, or if you have thoughts of self-harm or harming someone else, reach out and ask for help. Any form of self-injury signifies something bigger, and these stressors need attention.

Find a trustworthy adult, such as a friend, relative, health care professional, spiritual guide, teacher, counselor, or nurse at school. They can aid in your initial steps toward a successful course of treatment. Even though you might feel guilty and embarrassed about your actions, you can get helpful, compassionate assistance from people who won’t pass judgment on you. It’s alright, and keep in mind the adage, “You can’t get aid if nobody knows you need it.”

Self-Harm: Emergency Help

If you’ve injured yourself severely or believe your injury may be life-threatening, or if you think you may hurt yourself or attempt suicide, call 911 or 988 or your local emergency number immediately.

Also, consider these options if you’re having suicidal thoughts:

  • Call your mental health provider if you are seeing one.
  • Contact a suicide hotline. In the U.S., call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
  • Seek help from your school nurse, counselor, teacher, or health care provider.
  • Reach out to a close friend or family member.
  • Contact a spiritual leader or someone else in your faith community.

Self-Harm Test Questions

If you need to self-harm, try asking yourself these questions first. Write them down so you can refer to them later and analyze your reasoning for self-harm.

  • Why do I self-harm? Why do I feel I must self-injure? What has driven me to cut, burn, etc.?
  • Have I done this before? How did I cope then? Did I feel the same way?
  • What other paths have I pursued to ease my pain before now? Is there something else I can do, a self-harm alternative, that won’t hurt?
  • How am I feeling now?
  • How will I feel later when I am self-injuring?
  • How will I feel afterward? How will I feel tomorrow morning?
  • Can I avoid the problem that has driven me to this point? Is there a better way I can handle it next time?
  • Must I self-harm?

Print this self-harm test and your answers and share them with your doctor, therapist, or counselor. Your insights into why you self-harm and how you feel about self-harm could be very helpful in communicating and getting treatment and recovery moving forward. 

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