Due to stigmas around mental health topics, self-harm is often kept private. But it’s much more common than many realize. People of any age can engage in self-harm, from toddlers to seniors, and it’s especially prevalent in teens and young adults. In fact, about 15% of teens have reported some form of self-injury, and over the years that number has gone up.

So, what is self-harm? Why does it happen? And how can you find help or support someone else? We’re here with answers to common questions about self-harm, and we have resources for support.

It is possible to overcome the urge to hurt yourself, and you don’t need to do it alone.

What is self-harm?

Self-harm is a behavior where someone inflicts injury to themselves in a purposeful way. Clinically, it’s called nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI) because it’s done without the intention of ending one’s life.

One of the most common misconceptions about self-harm is that it’s an attempt at suicide. Usually, it’s not. Mental health experts and doctors often emphasize this when working with parents and family members of those engaged in self-harming behaviors.

But self-harm is still a serious concern that requires treatment – and it’s something doctors and therapists are careful about. While there may not be a conscious suicidal intent at the time, research shows that habitually harming oneself can have a desensitizing effect that lowers one’s inhibitions and can become a gateway to more serious harm, including suicide attempts for some people.

Self-harm itself is not a mental illness, but it’s often connected to a mental health concern. According to mental health experts, self-harming behavior occurs due to a lack of coping skills used to handle stressors or other triggers that one experiences. Self-injuries are often small and frequently kept hidden in areas that are covered by clothes. And while many people equate self-harm with cutting, it’s not limited to that.

Types of self-harm

Self-harm can take several different forms. Some of these include:

  • Cutting yourself
  • Punching yourself or punching something else (like a wall)
  • Intentionally scratching your skin
  • Burning yourself
  • Pulling your hair out
  • Consuming something harmful
  • Head banging

Causes for self-harm: Why would someone hurt themselves on purpose?

For someone engaging in this behavior, any stressor that overwhelms their ability to cope could be a trigger for self-harm. It typically stems from a very strong or overwhelming emotion related to relationships, work, school, finances or from a mental health condition.

What causes someone to feel stress is subjective. People experience things differently, and we all develop coping mechanisms – sometimes healthy, other times unhealthy – to navigate through it. For people who self-harm, wanting to hurt themselves is a coping mechanism that has developed (however counterintuitively) as a form of release.

The process of recovering from self-harming behaviors involves the individual replacing the compulsion to hurt themselves with healthier methods of coping with stress.

How can I help someone who self-harms?

It can be hard for someone who has never self-harmed to understand why people do it. The first step is to acquaint yourself with some of the reasons behind it so you can empathize with and better support someone struggling with it.

If you think self-harm may be an issue for someone you care about, start by asking how they’re doing. It may sound simple, but showing interest and concern for someone can make a big difference. This is especially true if they feel alone in their pain and trapped in an unhealthy cycle.

Self-harm is often a sign of other emotional problems or life stressors. Be prepared to listen nonjudgmentally to what they say, even if you don’t agree with what they consider a stressor or their interpretation of that stressor. It’s important to remember that you can still respect their experience.

Use validating comments like, “That sounds really hard” or “I hear you.” Always express hope for the person, especially about their ability to recover and feel better. And reassure them that they’re not alone.

Use validating comments like, “That sounds really hard” or “I hear you.” Always express hope for the person, especially about their ability to recover and feel better. And reassure them that they’re not alone.

You can gently suggest that they talk to a mental health professional. Always express hope for the person, especially about their ability to recover and feel better. And reassure them that they’re not alone. You can gently suggest that they talk to a mental health professional. HealthPartners has experienced mental health care teams across Minnesota and western Wisconsin who can help.

Can someone who self-harms get better?

Yes, absolutely. It happens every day. Like with other health conditions, treatment for self-harm can help immensely and lead to life-long recovery. This process often begins when an individual tells someone in their life about self-harming or the urge to self-harm, even if it hasn’t been acted upon.

Sharing what you’re going through with a family member, friend, doctor or mental health therapist is an important step toward healing. Talking to your primary care doctor is a great place to start. They will listen to your experience, recommend skills to try in the short-term and connect you with a mental health professional who can help.

Or you can start by making an appointment directly with a mental health specialist. Licensed mental health professionals include psychologists, marriage and family therapists, and clinical social workers. An experienced professional can work with you to create a personalized treatment plan based on your specific needs and goals.

Treatment for self-harm

Treatment for self-harm typically includes cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Through CBT, an individual is guided to better understand their behaviors as they relate to their emotional experience. Therapy can help people learn new and healthier ways of managing stress and strong emotions so they can replace self-harming habits with a healthier coping mechanism. This empowers them to break the cycle, be free of what often feels like a heavy secret and keep up healthy coping habits long-term.

Medication may also be recommended to help someone manage self-harm if symptoms stem from a mental health issue like anxiety or depression.

Don’t wait – talk to a professional about self-harm

Like other mental health concerns, talking about self-harm can feel like a hard conversation to start. But it can help to remember that you’re not alone in your experience. One in five adults in the U.S. experiences a mental health issue every year. And on average, 10 years passes before someone seeks treatment.

Taking that first step to talk to someone about self-injury is a sign of strength and resilience. And soon, you’ll have the tools to rewire your habits into healthy coping mechanisms that will positively impact so many aspects of your life.

Resources and support