Self-injury, also known as cutting, self-harm, or self-mutilation, occurs when someone intentionally and repeatedly harms herself/himself in a way that is impulsive and not intended to be lethal. It can be frightening for a parent to discover that their son or daughter is engaging in this behavior.
Self-harm is rarely a problem that occurs in isolation. It is often a way to manage conflict or distress and a tool to manage emotions that feel unmanageable to an individual. The person may have a difficult time regulating, expressing or understanding their emotions. Adolescents often say they feel empty inside, lonely and unable to express strong emotion.
Self-harm is often hard to detect because it is secretive. Researchers at Cornell University suggest that several signs may indicate self-harm behavior. These include unexplained burns or a cluster of scars or cuts, difficulty handling feelings, relationship problems or avoidance of relationships and poor functioning at work and or school.
Common areas for self-harm are the wrists, fists, and forearms, however any area of the body is possible. Those engaging in such behavior may wear clothing that is inappropriate for the season as they try and conceal the scarring. Also, using heavy wrist bands, bandages or other coverings is common as one tries to conceal their wounds.
The following are some forms of self-injury:
- Burns (using matches, cigarettes or hot sharp objects such as knives)
- Carving words
- Hitting or punching
- Piercing the skin with sharp objects
- Pulling out hair
- Persistent picking designed to interfere with wound healing
- Breaking bones
- Drinking something harmful
Persons who engage in self-harm are more likely to be highly self-critical and poor problem solvers. Age is one of the biggest risk factors for self-injury, with teens and young adults being at a greater risk. According to Mental Health America, research indicates that self-injury occurs in approximately 4% of adults in the United States and 15% of teens with an even higher risk existing for college age students. Other risk factors include; friends who self-harm, being neglected or abused (sexually, physically or emotionally) and persons who question their personal identity or sexuality.
There is no sure way to prevent a loved one from self-injury. Reducing the risk involves individuals and communities including parents, schools, medical professionals, co-workers and coaches working together and communicating openly about what they are seeing.
- Offer help. Those at risk can be taught alternative coping skills and to rely on their own strength and resilience.
- Encourage expansion of social networks. Many people who engage in self-harm often express feeling lonely and disconnected. Forming connections and improving relationships can help decrease the disconnection.
- Raise Awareness. Adults, especially those that work with children, should be educated about the warning signs. Group discussions and educational programs can be helpful in raising awareness.
If someone you know is engaging in self-injury consult a mental health professional that has expertise in this area to obtain an evaluation or assessment, followed by a recommended course of treatment to prevent the cycle from continuing.