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Self-Harm: Who Is at Risk, Signs, and Treatment

Self-harm is not a mental disorder. It is a behavior – an unhealthy way to cope with strong feelings.

Self-harm, or self-injury, is when a person hurts his or her own body on purpose. The injuries may be minor, but sometimes they can be severe. They may leave permanent scars or cause serious health problems. Some examples are

  • Cutting yourself (such as using a razor blade, knife, or other sharp object to cut your skin)
  • Punching yourself or punching things (like a wall)
  • Burning yourself with cigarettes, matches, or candles
  • Pulling out your hair
  • Poking objects through body openings
  • Breaking your bones or bruising yourself

People who harm themselves are usually not trying to kill themselves. But they are at higher risk of attempting suicide if they do not get help.

Why do people harm themselves?

There are different reasons why people harm themselves. Often, they have trouble coping and dealing with their feelings. They harm themselves to try to

  • Make themselves feel something, when they feel empty or numb inside
  • Block upsetting memories
  • Show that they need help
  • Release strong feelings that overwhelm them, such as anger, loneliness, or hopelessness
  • Punish themselves
  • Feel a sense of control

Who is at risk for self-harm?

There are people of all ages who harm themselves, but it usually starts in the teen or early adult years. Self-harm is more common in people who

What are the signs of self-harm?

Signs that someone may be hurting themselves include

  • Having frequent cuts, bruises, or scars
  • Wearing long sleeves or pants even in hot weather
  • Making excuses about injuries
  • Having sharp objects around for no clear reason

How can I help someone who self-harms?

If someone you know is self-harming, it is important not to be judgmental. Let that person know that you want to help. If the person is a child or teenager, ask him or her to talk to a trusted adult. If he or she won’t do that, talk to a trusted adult yourself. If the person who is self-harming is an adult, suggest mental health counseling.

What the treatments are for self-harm?

There are no medicines to treat self-harming behaviors. But there are medicines to treat any mental disorders that the person may have, such as anxiety and depression. Treating the mental disorder may weaken the urge to self-harm.

Mental health counseling or therapy can also help by teaching the person

  • Problem-solving skills
  • New ways to cope with strong emotions
  • Better relationship skills
  • Ways to strengthen self-esteem

If the problem is severe, the person may need more intensive treatment in a psychiatric hospital or a mental health day program.

Source: Medline Plus | Self-Harm, https://medlineplus.gov/selfharm.html| MedlinePlus contains both copyrighted and non-copyrighted material. Health Topic summary pages are in the public domain.

A screening can help you determine if you or someone you care about should contact a mental health professional. Care Coordinators can arrange a free 30 minute Care Consultation so you can explore options with an expert. Call or email our Care Coordinators at 650.688.3625 or careteam@chconline.org to set up an initial Consultation appointment.

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