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Non-Suicidal Self-injury in Youth

Beth Hess - Thursday, November 09, 2017
Did you know that approximately 15 percent of middle and high school students have reported engaging in non-suicidal self-injury? Rates among college students are even higher, and have been estimated at 17-35 percent. “Non-suicidal self-injury” is the term used to describe any physical intentional harming of oneself without the goal of suicide. It is also sometimes referred to as “self-injurious behavior,” and may involve cutting, scratching, burning or self-hitting.  

There are a multitude of reasons why youth may self-harm. Often (but not always), there is an underlying mental health problem such as anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder or borderline personality disorder. Whether or not there is a mental health disorder, the reported reasons for non-suicidal self-injury are similar:
  • to relieve negative feelings
  • to put a physical face on the internal pain being felt
  • to produce positive feelings (endorphins may be released)
  • to punish oneself
  • to exercise control over one’s own body
Occasionally a youth may self-injure for attention. This can be a cry for help.

While self-injury is usually not a suicide attempt, a youth may hurt themself to a dangerous degree. For example, they may cut themselves more seriously than intended and require emergency medical treatment. Moreover, youth who report engaging in self-injury are many times more likely to make a suicide attempt at some point in their lives. Because of the potential danger, and because it may indicate a mental health problem, non-suicidal self-injury should be addressed as soon as possible.  

Sometimes there are obvious signs that a youth has been engaging in self-harm, such as bruises, scabs or scars. A more subtle sign is the wearing of inappropriate clothing in warm weather, such as shirts with long sleeves and pants, to hide injuries.

If you know or suspect that your child may be engaging in self-harm, there are a number of steps you can take:
  • Speak with them about it in a non-judgmental way.
  • Ask them questions – what is upsetting them? Validate their feelings.
  • Make arrangements for them to get professional help.
For information about seeking professional help for your child, see the First Steps in Seeking Help Family Fact Sheet

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