The Ins and Outs of Self-Harm
Self-harm is a means in which adolescents seek refuge from their emotional pain through the infliction of bodily harm. The physical wounds of self-harm often result in permanent scarring – both psychologically and physically. For most, it’s hard to understand what would lead adolescents to take such drastic measures and deliberately harm themselves. Unfortunately, there is no universal answer; rather, it’s a means to cope. And that coping behavior can become habitual and addictive. Teens who self-harm often lack healthy coping skills, so their inner turmoil becomes an external branding. In essence, they seek to bleed away their pain.
Self-harm typically begins mid-adolescence. Adolescence is a time when youth seek autonomy and peer acceptance, all while trying to cope with the ever-increasing pressures of everyday life. According to the data, the worldwide prevalence of self-injury in adolescents is about 17 percent; 13 percent among young adults; and 6 percent among adults. Studies in the U.S. indicate the lifetime prevalence of self-harm ranges from 12 to 37 percent in secondary school populations and 12 to 20 percent in young adult populations. Research also indicates that females are about three times more likely to engage in self-injurious behavior compared to their male counterparts. Sadly, the data may not paint an accurate picture, as self-harm often goes unreported and undetected.
Self-harm is often a symptom of underlying psychiatric disorders, such as depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorders and eating disorders. These are serious mental health conditions that warrant professional attention and can improve with treatment. It’s important to note that self-harm frequently gets linked with suicidal intent. While there’s an association between suicide and self-harm, not all teens who self-harm wants to die; they just want to find a temporary escape from their psychological suffering. However, the correlation between self-harm and suicide should not go unnoticed either, as some teens may use self-harm as a cry for help.
Research reports several risk factors associated with self-harm and suicide, and these include: problematic behavior at school, history of parental mental health problems, dysfunctional relationships with parents and peers, traumatic life events like sexual trauma, angry and aggressive behavior, depression, impulsivity, anxiety and substance abuse. While addressing self-harm can seem like an overwhelming obstacle for parents, educators and helping professionals, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Teens can learn more constructive and healthy ways to cope, but they are going to need our help. In order to help these troubled youth, we must first educate ourselves on the “ins and outs” of self-injurious behavior.
In What Ways Do Teens Engage in Self-harm?
There are many ways teens harm themselves. The following are some of the most commonly reported:
- Cutting or carving into the skin with objects such as scissors or razors, which draws and leaves scars on the skin.
- Burning oneself with hot objects (blistering) or even rubbing the skin with items such as erasers (creating a skin abrasion) and/or salt and ice (freezing skin tissue) to produce a skin irritation.
- Scratching or pinching with fingernails or objects to the point of bleeding or leaving marks on the skin.
- Interfering with healing of wounds by continuously pulling off scabs or re-opening wounds.
- Banging or punching oneself or objects (some teens beat their heads with their fists or against a hard surface) to induce pain.
- Breaking bones by slamming objects, like a hammer, on fingers or toes, or trying to snap or fracture bones.
- Ingesting toxic substances or swallowing objects, like overdosing on prescribed or over-the-counter medication or ingesting foreign bodies such as batteries or pen parts.