March is Self-Harm Awareness Month, so we thought we’d share what
we know about this important topic.
What exactly is self-harm?
Non-Suicidal Self-Injury (NSSI) is defined as any deliberate act of harm to one’s body without suicidal intent (Nock, 2009). It can include behaviors like burning or picking at wounds, but hitting oneself on purpose and cutting with sharp objects have been found to be the most common methods of NSSI (Muehlenkamp & Gutierrez, 2007).
There are numerous reasons that people may engage in self harm. Some reasons include (this list is not exhaustive): to relieve emotional distress, to cope with emotional pain, intense anger and frustration, and due to feeling misunderstood. Raising awareness about self-injury is incredibly important. Though some individuals may attempt suicide, the self-injuring behavior is not the same as a suicide attempt. It has been reported that the majority of those who harm themselves are teenagers or young adults.
Self-Harm is not an attempt to “manipulate” others, and it is not inherently “attention-seeking.” Conceptualizing it as such may cause adults to minimize, dismiss, or intentionally ignore it as an attempt to extinguish the behaviors. It may misguide adults into thinking that if they do not attend to it, the behaviors will eventually go away. However, this can be an extremely harmful response. Youth may feel invalidated or uncared for, resulting in escalation of behaviors and greater emotion dysregulation. There are many possible reasons why an individual may engage in self-harm, including escape or relief from psychological pain, to feel something if emotional numbing is present (e.g., after experiencing trauma), to obtain care and concern if they lack the skills to ask for help effectively, etc. It is important to start with validation, and provide appropriate help and support to address the underlying factors.
Self Injury is Often Concealed
Despite figures exposing that 17% of people will self-harm in their lifetime – it’s a subject that is often hidden, meaning this statistic will most likely be severely understated. People might wear a shirt while swimming, bracelets to cover their scars or hide cuts with a plaster cast. Many feel they may lose their job or get into trouble at work or school if their scars are exposed. They’ll often make up a story of where the bruise or scar came from.
Concealing the problem simply makes it worse. That’s why awareness of self-harm is important, so that people can get the much-needed help they require, without lectures, shaming or blame.
Self-Injury Awareness Month is an important time to shine the light on a problem that is so often covered over.
Seeking appropriate treatment from a professional can help individuals with this disorder to learn healthier ways to cope. If your child is already connected to care, make sure to notify their therapist immediately to ensure it gets addressed in the next session. This is especially important, if your child has never engaged in self-harm before and/or you are noticing an escalation in behaviors. It is also worth discussing whether the current therapy is adequate for addressing self-harm or if a higher level of care is needed.