“Self-injury is an expression of acute psychological distress. It is an act done to oneself, by oneself, with the intention of helping oneself rather than killing oneself. Paradoxically, damage is done to the body in an attempt to preserve the integrity of the mind.” —Sutton and Martinson, 2003
Self-injury is a serious phenomenon that affects millions of adolescents. Current prevalence estimates of non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) among middle school and high school students range from 15% to 20%, and some studies estimate rates even higher than that.
It can be difficult for family members, friends, and even professionals to understand what causes young people to hurt themselves, or to know how to respond. Discovering that a child or adolescent is engaging in self-harming behaviors can be frightening. It is not uncommon to feel panic, worry, or even disgust when you suspect or discover this type of behavior. Having accurate information is an important first step for parents, teachers, and other helping professionals who may be the first line of defense when adolescents engage in non-suicidal self-injury.
What’s the Difference Between Self-Injury and a Suicide Attempt?
Non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) describes the intentional injury to or destruction of one’s own body tissue, most commonly through cutting, burning, or self-hitting. Sometimes parents wonder if cutting and other self-harming behaviors are simply a cry for attention. If that’s true and someone needs attention that badly, then I can’t imagine a more appropriate response than to give it. Instead of looking at it as a bid for attention, though, try thinking of it as an attempt at communication.
Cutting and other forms of self-harm should always be taken seriously. Most individuals who engage in non-suicidal self-injury do so in secret and go to great lengths to hide the behavior from others. Most often, NSSI is performed as a way to regulate or modulate strong, painful emotions. Sometimes, NSSI is also described as a way for individuals who feel numb to “feel alive.”
NSSI should not be construed as a failed suicide attempt. NSSI is an attempt to live with or manage painful feelings—unlike suicide, which attempts to permanently end pain by ending one’s life.
NSSI should not be construed as a failed suicide attempt. NSSI is an attempt to live with or manage painful feelings—unlike suicide, which attempts to permanently end pain by ending one’s life. It is important to note, however, that although they serve different functions, NSSI is associated with an increased risk of future suicide attempts, and therefore should never be taken lightly.
Signs to Watch For
It is important for parents, teachers, and other helping professionals to learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of self-injury. A few things to watch for include: wearing long sleeves even when it is hot outside; a pressing desire for a lot of time alone; and, of course, unexplained, or suspicious cuts, burns, or bruises.
Sometimes, individuals who engage in self-harming behaviors may appear to be clumsy or have frequent accidents, and use these incidents to explain self-inflicted injuries. Adolescents who experience depression or anxiety, have difficulty solving problems, or who tend to feel things deeply may have an increased risk of turning to NSSI as a method of coping.
What to Do If Your Child Is Cutting
How you respond matters! If you suspect or discover that your child is cutting or engaging in other self-harming behaviors, it is important to seek help from a qualified mental health professional. A professional will begin with an assessment and may recommend family or individual therapy, or a combination of both.
Early intervention is best, so don’t wait to get help. Treatment can be effective at both reducing the behaviors and addressing painful emotions.
Sutton, J., & Martinson, D. (2003). Because I hurt: Understanding self-injury & healing the hurt. Oxford: How To Books.
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