fbpx What Is Self-Harm?
Authored by Nexus Family Healing on September 7, 2023

Content Warning: This blog and video contain discussions of self-harm/injury, suicidal ideation, and suicide. Reader discretion is advised.

Self-Harm can be a difficult subject to talk about, but it's important parents and caretakers are educated on the topic, the signs to look for, and the difference between self-harm and suicidal ideation.

According to our Clinical Director Specialist Luke Spiegelhoff, self-harm occurs when an individual is struggling with processing certain emotions, and to cope with this distress, will physically injure themselves in some way, often by cutting certain parts of their bodies. 

Hear more from Luke Spiegelhoff in the video below as he explains why someone may self-harm and how you can help. 

Types of Self-Harm

There are two main types of self-harm. The first often occurs in people with autism spectrum disorder or people who are developmentally delayed where the self-injury shows as hitting, scratching, or physical violence to themselves. The second type is the one that most are familiar with: when a person struggles with high psychological and/or emotional stress and purposefully injures themselves to cope with their feelings, or to combat not feeling anything at all. 

While many may assume someone who is self-harming may also have suicidal ideation (thoughts of taking one’s own life), this is not always the case. Typically, those who engage in self-injurious behaviors are doing so to control or manage the situation where they are experiencing pain and distress, whereas people who are experiencing suicidal ideation will harm themselves with the intent to end their life. 

People who self-harm are looking for a way to change the way they are feeling, or to feel anything besides numbness or emptiness. How does hurting yourself do this? When you experience an injury, a cut, or a burn for example, your body springs into action sending adrenaline and endorphins to help itself heal. This “rush” can cause a shift in the mood of a person who is experiencing painful emotions or numbness; this feeling can become highly addictive and create a dangerous cycle. 

Self-Harm Warning Signs

Some common signs to look for when someone is engaging in self-harm are that they may be wearing longer sleeves or pants, even in warm weather, to hide their scars from self-harming. You may be seeing frequent injuries that they don’t have an explanation for. The person may become more withdrawn or have strong emotional outbursts. They may have a sharp object of some kind hidden away or on hand, like a kitchen knife or scissors. 

How Do You Approach Someone Who Is Self-Harming?

Gently. Do not go on the offensive and say shaming words like “why would you do this to yourself?” or “what’s wrong with you, don’t you know that’s dangerous?” Chances are the person you are talking to is painfully aware of this and feels a deep shame for their behavior. Approach gently and ask if there was a specific event or feeling that is causing them to do this. 

Once you begin those conversations, seek professional help. Self-harm can create a physiological response and form habits of dealing with tough or unpleasant feelings or life events in unproductive ways such as a fight with a caretaker. It can lead to rejection, depression and/or anxiety. It’s important for the person to learn coping skills to handle those tough situations. If you are a caretaker, your child may not want to talk to you, but seek help from a pediatrician, school counselor, or a therapist to help your child. 

As scary and difficult as this subject can be, remember that you are not alone. Create a team of trusted adults for your child to help you both handle this situation.

Nexus Family Healing is a national nonprofit mental health organization that restores hope for thousands of children and families who come to us for outpatient/community mental health servicesfoster care and adoption, and residential treatment. For over 50 years, our network of agencies has used innovative, personalized approaches to heal trauma, break cycles of harm, and reshape futures. We believe every child is worth it — and every family matters. Learn more at nexusfamilyhealing.org.