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Young Adult and Teen Self-Harm

While self-harm is not a mental health disorder in and of itself, it's often a serious warning sign of deeper mental health issues.

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What is self-harm?

Self-harm—also referred to as self-mutilation, self-injury, or suicidal self-injury (NSSI)—is when a person deliberately hurts themself. The most common forms of self-injury are skin cutting, head banging or hitting, and burning.

Other forms of self-harm include:

  1. Scratching
  2. Pulling out hair (also known as trichotillomania)
  3. Picking at existing wounds
  4. Carving symbols or words into the skin
  5. Piercing the skin with sharp objects such as needles or hairpins
  6. Drinking toxic substances like bleach or detergent

Why do young adults and teens self-harm?

Hurting yourself—or thinking about hurting yourself—is a sign of emotional pain. When people choose to self-harm, it’s often as a way to cope with anger, negative feelings, painful memories, or difficult situations. Unfortunately, self-harm can become a scary cycle, especially when you’re not equipped with the skills to manage your pain in a healthy way. 

Some people engage in acts of self-harm as a way to:

  1. Release intense emotional pain into physical pain
  2. Deal with sadness, emptiness, and numbness
  3. Gain a sense of control
  4. Release feelings of guilt or anxiety 
  5. Escape from traumatic memories
  6. Punish themselves 

Most people who engage in self-harm don’t have suicidal intent, but the behaviors can still lead to severe injuries or even death. If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or dial 911.

Woman dealing with her self-harm

Signs of self-harm in young adults and teens

Think that a friend or classmate might be self-harming, but you’re not sure what to look for? The following behaviors are warning signs that someone might be engaging in self-harm:

  1. Scars
  2. Frequent cuts, burns, bruises, scratches, or other physical injuries
  3. Making excuses for new injuries
  4. Wearing long pants and long sleeves, even in hot weather
  5. Withdrawing from activities they previously enjoyed
  6. Persistent questions or struggles with their personal identity
  7. Instability, impulsiveness, or unpredictability
  8. Sharing that they often feel helpless, hopeless, or worthless

Risk factors for self-harm in young adults and teens

So what places someone at risk for this type of behavior? It can be hard to say because self-harm doesn’t discriminate. Anyone who is struggling to express their feelings or who feels a lack of control over their life circumstances may turn to this coping method for relief. 

Self-harm is most common among teenagers and young adults, with approximately 15 percent of teens reporting that they have engaged in self-harm at some point. Research shows that the risk for self-injury is even higher among college students, with rates ranging from 17-35 percent. It’s also more common among females than males. 

And although research behind self-harm is still inconclusive, it has been linked to other disorders such as depression, anxiety, and autism spectrum disorder

Other risk factors for engaging in self-harming behaviors include: 

  1. Struggling with low self-esteem or feelings of worthlessness
  2. Struggling at school or living with a learning disability
  3. Being a victim of bullying, microaggressions, or discrimination
  4. Being part of the LGBTQIA+ youth community (adolescents who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender are three times as likely to experience depression and engage in self-harm)
  5. Struggling with abuse, loss of a loved one, or another traumatic experience
  6. Having friends who self-harm

Consequences of self-harm

Without proper support and treatment, self-harm can lead to serious mental and physical consequences for children, teens, and young adults. 

Thinking about some of the forms of self-harm mentioned earlier—such as cutting, scratching, and piercing skin—it’s not uncommon for the behaviors to cause permanent scars, infected wounds, and even time at the hospital. 

Self-harm can also exacerbate feelings of guilt, shame, sadness, and loneliness, and has been linked to other mental health conditions, including:

  1. Depression 
  2. Drug or alcohol abuse
  3. Bipolar disorder
  4. Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Young adult and teen self-harm treatment

If you or someone you know is engaging in self-injury, professional support is key to breaking the harmful cycle and dealing with the emotional pain. 

In general, intensive outpatient therapy is the first step to feeling better. A licensed therapist can help you gain insight into your mental health, understand your triggers, and explore healthy ways to cope with negative emotions. Plus, therapy is also an effective treatment for co-occurring mental health conditions, including anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and substance abuse.

In addition to psychotherapy, there are other ways to help yourself or others process emotions and avoid future self-harm.

Charlie Health's <a class="block-quote-link-large" href="https://charliehealth.com/intensive-outpatient-iop">Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP)</a> offers teens and young adults a chance to understand and overcome this cycle of harmful behavior.

How to help yourself if you’re struggling with self-harm

We all look for ways to process and cope with our emotions, and some solutions are better for us than others. If you’re currently struggling with self-harm, know that Charlie Health is here to help. Below are a few ways to manage your emotions that don’t involve self-harm. 

Identify self-harm triggers

It's not always possible to control your circumstances, but it is possible to understand what people, places, and events cause you to feel distress. Once you have a better understanding of what triggers the pain, you’re one step closer to finding healthier ways to cope. 

Swap self-harming behavior with a healthy alternative

Running, drawing, taking a hot bath; it may take some trial and error but eventually you’ll find an outlet that allows you to release some of the pain, anxiety, and stress. 

Use the buddy system

Once you share your truth with someone else—whether it’s a friend, family member, or mentor—it’ll be easier to open up on an ongoing basis and make that person your safe space. Not sure where to start? Try something like, “I’m struggling right now and I haven’t been processing my emotions in a healthy way. I could use your support.” 

Connect with a community

If you don't currently have someone in your life whom you feel comfortable confiding in, you might want to consider exploring group therapy. The community you can build when enrolled at Charlie Health can help you feel seen, heard, and connected.

Teen girl talking to her therapist about her self-harm

How to help others

Self-harm tends to come with stigma, so it might not always be obvious when someone in your life is struggling. And even if you do notice they’re acting a bit off, you might not know the extent of the problem. Below are a few ways to help others who are struggling with self-harm.

Speak up

You’ve probably heard the slogan if you see something, say something. Well it applies here too. Self-harm is a serious and potentially fatal act. Although it may feel awkward to start the conversation, it could save that person’s life. 

Educate yourself on emergency protocol

If you suspect that someone you know is struggling to cope with emotional pain or distress, it’s best to be prepared. If you think someone is at immediate risk of self-harm or suicidal thoughts, take the following steps:

  1. Remove any medications, knives, or materials that may be used to cause harm from the person.
  2. Stay calm and avoid any threatening or judgmental language.
  3. Call 911 or a suicide hotline (resources listed below) if the situation escalates.
  4. Remain with the person until help arrives or they reach a more balanced place.

How to handle an emergency

If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts or thinking about self-injuring, please know that help is always available. For immediate support, visit your local emergency department or crisis center, or call one of the following resources.

  1. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255)
  2. The Crisis Text Line (text HOME to 741741)
  3. The National Alliance on Mental Illness HelpLine (1-800-950-NAMI (6264))
  4. SAMHSA’s National Helpline (1-800-662-HELP (4357))

Young adult and teen self-harm help at Charlie Health

Self-harm is not a sign of weakness. Charlie Health is here to listen to your needs, answer your questions, and match you with an appropriate treatment plan. Learn more today

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