Understanding Self-Harm and Self-Injury - A Guide to Support and Healing

Understanding Self-Harm and Self-Injury - A Guide to Support and Healing

Self-harm, also known as self-injury, is when someone intentionally hurts themselves as a way to cope with emotional pain or distress. This can include actions like cutting, burning or hitting oneself. Self-Injury Awareness Month is a reminder of the importance of understanding, compassion, and support for those struggling with self-harm. Stigma and misconceptions surrounding the topic of self-injury can discourage individuals from opening up about their struggles. Understanding the reasons behind self-harm, how to know if someone is self-injuring, and the options available for support and treatment can help us all reduce the stigma surrounding this mental health challenge, create open conversations, and serve as allies to those who need support.

Why do people self-harm?

Self-harm is a behavior some people use to manage intense emotional pain or stressful situations. It's important to approach this topic with care and empathy, as there's often more going on beneath the surface contributing to such actions. Here's a closer look at why individuals might engage in self-harm:

  • Managing Emotional Distress: Self-harm is often a response to overwhelming feelings of sadness, anxiety, anger, or guilt. People may seek the temporary distraction of physical pain to escape their emotional suffering.

  • Nonverbally Expressing Pain: When unable to express the depth of their distress in words, individuals may resort to self-harm as a way to physically manifest and communicate their emotional turmoil.

  • Exerting Control: In the face of feeling helpless or powerless, some may turn to self-injury as a means to assert control over their own bodies as a way to counteract a lack of control in other life areas.

  • Self-punishment: Driven by feelings of guilt or shame, self-harm can be used as a form of self-inflicted punishment by those who believe they deserve to be hurt for their perceived flaws or mistakes.

  • Overcoming Emotional Numbness: To combat feelings of disconnection or numbness, self-harm is sometimes used as a desperate attempt to feel something tangible and break through the emotional void.

  • Validating Internal Struggles: Visible injuries can serve as a form of validation for those who feel their internal pain is not taken seriously or acknowledged by others.

  • Dealing with Trauma: Survivors of trauma might use self-harm as a coping mechanism to process or relive the emotional and psychological scars left by physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.

  • Peer Influences: Social environments and peer groups that normalize self-harm can have a significant impact, particularly on adolescents, leading them to adopt similar harmful behaviors.

Common Misconceptions About Self-Injury

As part of discussing why people engage in self-harming behavior, it’s important to clarify some common misconceptions about self-injury. First, it's essential to recognize that self-injury is not always indicative of suicidal intentions. Often, individuals engage in self-harm as a coping mechanism to manage emotional distress rather than as an attempt to end their lives. Second, let’s dispel the idea that self-harm is confined to adolescence. Individuals of all ages may grapple with this behavior as a response to various stressors, traumas, or mental health challenges.

The term "non-suicidal self-injury" (NSSI) is worth noting. NSSI refers to deliberate self-harm without suicidal intent and is another way to refer to self-harm or self-injury. This distinction underscores that self-harm serves a different purpose from suicidal behavior. By acknowledging NSSI, we can adopt a more informed and compassionate approach to supporting individuals struggling with self-injury, regardless of their age or demographic.

Learn more about self-harm myths and misconceptions in this video.

What are the signs and symptoms of self-harm?

Recognizing self-harm symptoms is crucial as this behavior often indicates deeper emotional distress that requires professional support. By understanding why individuals may engage in self-injury, we can cultivate a compassionate and effective strategy for offering help, steering them toward healthier ways of coping and recovery.

Some common signs of self-injury to be aware of include:

  • Inexplicable injuries such as cuts, bruises, or burns, frequently seen on the wrists, arms, thighs, or chest
  • Wearing long sleeves or long pants consistently, even in warm weather, as a method to hide injuries
  • Increased tendency to isolate from friends and family
  • Notable mood swings or emotional instability
  • Expressing concerns or dissatisfaction with body image

How can you help someone who self-harms?

Supporting someone who self-harms can feel daunting, but your compassion, understanding, and willingness to help can make a significant difference in their recovery journey. Here are some ways you can offer your support:

    • Educate yourself: Understanding self-injury better can help you support your loved one. Resources are available online and through local mental health organizations.

    • Initiate a supportive conversation: Choose a private, quiet time to express your care using non-judgmental language, demonstrating that your approach is out of genuine concern. It's equally important to listen without judgment, ensuring a safe space for the individual to feel heard and understood, showing empathy and concern rather than shock or disgust.

    • Encourage professional help: While your personal support is valuable, professional help is often necessary to address the underlying issues leading to self-harm. Encourage them to seek the assistance of a therapist or medical doctor and offer to help them find resources.

    • Be patient and understanding: Recovery is a process that takes time. Show patience and understand that there might be setbacks along the way.

Remember, it's also important to take care of yourself. Supporting someone through such a difficult time can be emotionally taxing, so ensure you have your own support system in place.

What are effective self-harm treatments?

The most effective treatment for individuals who self-harm typically involves a combination of therapy, medication (if needed for underlying mental health conditions), and self-care strategies. The goal of self-injury treatment is to address the underlying issues that contribute to the self-harming behavior, such as emotional pain, mental health disorders, or trauma. Effective treatments and approaches might include:


    • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): Specifically designed for individuals with self-harm behaviors and borderline personality disorder. DBT focuses on teaching coping skills to manage distress, regulate emotions, improve relationships, and live mindfully.

    • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Helps individuals identify and challenge negative thought patterns and behaviors, teaching healthier coping mechanisms.

    • Psychodynamic Therapy: Explores the underlying psychological roots of emotional suffering, helping individuals understand and resolve these issues.

    • Mindfulness-Based Therapies: Encourages individuals to focus on the present moment and develop an awareness of their thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations in a non-judgmental way, helping to reduce impulsivity and self-harm behaviors.

Learn more about self-injury and treatment options by watching this video.


Some individuals might also be prescribed medication as part of treatment for nonsuicidal self-injury. While there is no specific medication for self-harm, medications may be prescribed to treat underlying conditions such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder. Antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and mood stabilizers can help manage symptoms that may contribute to self-harm behaviors.

Self-Care Strategies

Making changes in one’s lifestyle and environment to reduce stressors, improve relationships, and foster a supportive and understanding community are crucial components of self-care for those struggling with self-injury. When used together, these self-care strategies can provide a framework for individuals striving to find healthier ways to cope with emotional distress and maintain a routine that supports mental well-being.

In developing strategies to combat self-harm, it's vital to focus on developing healthy coping skills as alternatives to self-injury. Trying out regular exercise, ensuring a healthy diet, keeping a journal of thoughts and feelings, and enjoying hobbies can be great outlets for emotion.

Building a strong support system is also important. Having friends, and family, or being part of a support group can offer emotional support and a sense of belonging.

Learning stress management techniques, including mindfulness, meditation, and deep breathing exercises, can also play a crucial role. These methods help reduce stress and the urge to self-harm.

    • Additionally, creating a safety plan is a key proactive approach to self-care. This plan should involve identifying potential triggers, listing effective coping strategies, and pinpointing supportive individuals to contact during moments of crisis.

Finding Support for Non-suicidal Self-Injury

Both in-person and online support groups create a sense of belonging and understanding, connecting people with peers who have faced similar challenges. For those moments when immediate help is needed, various helplines and text services are available around the clock, offering support at your fingertips. Educating yourself about self-harm is also crucial. Reputable sources can provide insights and strategies for better management and understanding of this complex issue. Opening up to a trusted friend, family member, or teacher can make a world of difference, providing a supportive ear and encouragement to seek professional help.

Some self-injury specific resources include:

Local mental health charities, support groups, and professional counseling services can also provide assistance and guidance tailored to individual needs.

Self-Injury Awareness Month is a reminder of the importance of understanding, compassion, and support for those struggling with self-harm. By educating ourselves and opening up conversations, we can break down the stigma and provide a pathway to healing. Remember, if you or someone you know is dealing with self-harm, you're not alone, and help is available. It’s important for individuals to work closely with healthcare professionals to develop a tailored treatment plan that addresses their unique situation. There is help, there is hope, and with compassion and awareness, we can make a tangible difference in the lives of those coping with the distress that leads to self-injury. Let's continue the conversation, offer a supportive hand, and work towards a world where everyone can access the understanding and support they need to heal.