Self-injury or self-harm is a response to severe emotional distress. Intentional, non-suicidal injuries are a way for a person to mirror psychological pain with physical pain.
In some cases, the physical injury has a temporary calming effect and, in others, a self-inflicted wound is a means of “feeling something” to combat emotional numbness.
How Common is Self-Harm?
Despite the seemingly fringe aspect of this condition, it’s much more common than most people realize. Among teenagers, an estimated 15 percent will experience some form of self-injury. The number drops to 4 percent among adults. The most common forms of self-harm include:
- Skin cutting 70% to 90%
- Head banging or hitting 21% to 44%
- Flesh burning 15% to 35%
Perhaps one reason for the lack of awareness around the condition of self-harm is that a person can easily hide or explain away their injuries.
What Are the Signs of Self-Injury?
For family and friends, especially those who have loved ones suffering some type of mental illness, it’s important to watch for signs and patterns of self-injury. These might include:
- Arms, legs or other parts of the body that show signs of consistent injuries, such as scabs, bruises, burns and cuts
- Overdressing in particularly warm weather, wearing, for example, coats, long sleeve shirts or pants
- Repeatedly making excuses for why or how they got injured
- Avoidance, isolation and withdrawal from activities and relationships they previously enjoyed
The overwhelming majority of self-injury cases – some 90 percent – begin in adolescence. While the condition brings temporary relief for a person suffering, it carries a lot of shame and stigma.
Many people who self-harm are labeled attention seekers. This only serves to alienate and isolate them further. In other cases, family or friends might be in denial about the problem and still find themselves hiding sharp objects, such as kitchen knives, from their loved one.
Dr. Marsha Linehan, who was institutionalized at the age of 17 for extreme social withdrawal and severe self-harm, didn’t start sharing her experience until she was in her 60s.
Linehan now helps others and recalls for the New York Times that painful period in her life. “I felt totally empty, like the Tin Man; I had no way to communicate what was going on or understand it.”
Don’t Judge – Stay Supportive
When helping a person through the trauma of self-injury, listen, don’t judge or act disgusted. Stay supportive and proactive, drive them to a counselor’s appointment or visit them in treatment when appropriate. Take the opportunity to educate yourself about the condition and the underlying causes that often lead to it.
Self-injury Awareness Month is a chance to set aside stigma, understand the problem and be open about mental health and recovery. Far too many people suffer needlessly because they’re afraid of being judged.
Teenagers are especially vulnerable and often believe they’re the only ones in the world coping with these issues. But with treatment and support, self-injury can move from the present to the past.