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Self Harm: The Signs, Causes & How We Can Help

Sometimes people self-harm as a way to cope with emotional pain or distress. Here is a resource about the signs, causes, and how someone could potentially help.

WARNING: this post contains in-depth language and information about self-harm. If you are in acute crisis looking for help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or dial 911"

Self-harm, also called self-mutilation or nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI), is when someone deliberately harms their own body. Although acts of self-mutilation are intentional, many people who engage in self-injury do not have suicidal intent. Hurting yourself—or thinking about hurting yourself—is ultimately a sign of emotional pain. These difficult emotions can grow even more intense if a person uses self-injury as a coping mechanism. Whether you're engaging in NSSI or think that a loved one might be injuring themselves, help is available. Although intentional self-harm can become addictive, with the proper treatment, those who self-injure can recover from their behaviors and lead fulfilling and healthy lives.

Why do people self-harm?

Although the reasons for self-harm behaviors vary from person to person, many people self-harm to cope with negative feelings, painful memories, or difficult situations. In general, self-mutilation occurs when an individual experiences emotional pain that they cannot psychologically cope with and for which they do not have alternative, healthy coping mechanisms.

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

  • Express feelings that are difficult to put into words or to release intense emotional pain
  • Cope with negative feelings including sadness, emptiness, and numbness
  • Change emotional pain into physical pain
  • Gain a sense of control
  • Relieve feelings of guilt
  • Escape from traumatic memories
  • Punish themselves for specific feelings or experiences
  • Stop feeling emotionally numb, disconnected, or dissociated

After deliberate self-harm, people might experience a short-term sense of relief. However, self-mutilation is not the solution to mental health issues, and it often coincides with physical health risks. Self-mutilation can also bring up difficult emotions, and self-harming can make them worse.

Common Symptoms and Signs of Self-Harm

If you or someone you love is engaging in self-injury, seek professional help immediately. The following warning signs may indicate that someone you know is engaging in self-harm:

  • Frequent bruises, scabs, scars, scratches, or other physical injuries
  • Making excuses for how injuries developed (i.e., "I fell")
  • Wearing long pants and long sleeves even in hot weather
  • Withdrawing from previously enjoyed activities
  • Impulsive behaviors such as reckless driving or unsafe sex

What should you do if you're struggling with self-harm?

mental health treatment

If you or a loved one is engaging in self-injury behaviors, early intervention is essential. Without treatment, self-mutilation can have serious consequences such as infections, scars, and emergency hospital stays. Over time, the cycle of self-harm can be habit-forming, and individuals who fail to learn healthy coping mechanisms face a higher risk of substance misuse, suicide attempts, and other mental health challenges. In general, treatment for self-mutilation typically includes partial inpatient therapy or intensive outpatient therapy. When self-harm behaviors disrupt daily life or threaten one's health, a specialized psychotherapy program with experienced clinicians is recommended.

Some healthy ways to process your emotions and avoid self-harm include:

  • Seek professional help. If you're living with emotional pain, psychotherapy is the first step to feeling better. A licensed therapist can help you gain insight into your mental health, find healthy ways to cope with negative emotions, and understand your triggers. Therapy is also an effective treatment for co-occurring mental health conditions, including anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and substance abuse.
  • Talk to someone you trust. Even though it might be tempting to isolate yourself when you're feeling low, avoid withdrawing from loved ones. If you feel like committing an act of self-harm, reach out to a trusted friend, family member, or mental health provider for support. Confiding in a trusted teacher, school counselor, or health care provider may be the best option for adolescents, young adults, and college students.
  • Call a helpline. If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts or thinking about self-injuring, help is available. Visit your nearest emergency department, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 or the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) for immediate support.

How We Can Help

At Charlie Health, our intensive outpatient programs help adolescents, young adults, and their families navigate their mental health challenges in a safe, supportive environment. Our comprehensive, virtual treatment programs consist of group therapy, individual therapy, family therapy, and guided psychiatric support so you can access high-quality treatment from the comfort of your own home.

Whether you're living with depression or struggling with NSSI, our compassionate mental health professionals are here to support you every step of the way. Taking the first step can feel overwhelming, but finding the right therapist will make your life so much brighter.

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Reaching out takes courage. We’re here to listen to your needs, answer your questions, and match you with an appropriate treatment plan.

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