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Self-harming means hurting your body on purpose, often without the intent to end your life. The term ‘self-harming’ can be used to describe many behaviours, and is not a mental illness. Self-harming is considered a mental health concern and a sign of problems, or of difficulty managing life’s stresses. Self-harming can also mean difficulty coping with emotional pain.

The most common methods of self-harming among young people are cutting and knowingly overdosing on medication. Self—harming often results in mild to moderate physical injury, but more extreme cases may result in attempted suicide.

In most cases, self-harming is not meant to be fatal, but is instead being used as a coping strategy. Some young people say that self-harm distracts them from emotional pain, but this type of coping is risky.

What causes self-harming?

Self-harm occurs for many different reasons that can be really hard to talk about. You may not know how to put your emotional pain into words, or self-harming may even bring you a feeling of control that you don’t otherwise have.

Some young people are more likely to self-harm than others. If you have experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse, you could be at higher risk for this behaviour. If you live in a stressful and highly critical family environment, or have a mental illness such as depression, you may also be at higher risk.

Recovering from Self-Harming

  • With help from a mental health professional, and support from family and friends, self-harming is treatable, and recovery is possible.
  • Treatment is tailored to the severity of the self-harming behaviour. A Physician may prescribe medication, and counselling is often recommended.
  • Counselling can help build coping skills, and find other potentially less harmful ways of dealing with emotional pain.
  • You can think of recovery from self-harming as part of a personal journey to feel a degree of control over your life, and to have meaningful relationships with people you trust – whether they are family members, friends, or people at school or work.
  • Recovery also means different things to each person. For some, recovery means that no symptoms will persist, while for others, recovery means learning to live a full life despite any ongoing symptoms.

Signs of self-harming behaviour:

Though many individuals try to hide this behaviour, there are still noticeable signs that someone might be self-harming.

Note: These symptoms are not necessarily present all the time. This list should not be used to diagnose yourself or someone else. This is intended only to provide general information. If you think you might be experiencing a mental illness, you should see your doctor for an accurate assessment and treatment plan.

  • Excuses given for injuries
  • Odd injuries, such as scratches, cuts or burn marks in unusual places
  • Complaints of physical illnesses like headaches or stomach pains
  • Clothes that cover up a person’s arms and legs, even in hot weather
  • Hiding or excessively washing clothes
  • Avoiding situations where bare arms and legs would naturally happen – for example, swimming
  • Noticeable changes in mood
  • Changes in sleeping and eating patterns, either too much or not enough of either
  • Loss of interest and pleasure in activities that were once fun things to do
  • Less participation in friend and family communication and activity
  • Problems in friend, social or romantic boyfriend/girlfriend relationships

Getting help

Seek emergency help immediately if you are harming yourself and/or having suicidal thoughts or behaviours.

You should also seek help right away if you:

  • Have trouble with alcohol or drug use, or have other mental health concerns
  • Think your symptoms could be linked to a physical health problem
  • Are experiencing prolonged trouble sleeping
  • Feel as though normal life stresses don’t explain your symptoms

Try to talk to someone about how you feel. Sharing concerns with someone you trust can help keep you safe and direct you to medical help if necessary. Think about talking to:

  • A parent or other family member
  • Your school guidance counsellor
  • Medical personnel, such as your doctor or a nurse at a clinic, band office or nursing station
  • Staff at a teen clinic

Treatment and recovery are possible. Counselling can help you:

  • Find other ways to express emotional pain
  • Find easier ways to talk about things that are bothering you
  • Develop coping skills, which help you to manage any stresses you might be feeling before getting the urge to self-harm

Sometimes, recovery can take time, so it’s best to keep attending counselling even if you find it slow or hard the first few times.

Hacks for stopping

There are also some hacks that can help you to stop self-harming:

  1. Wait 10 minutes. Trying your best to put off the self-harming action can help stop the urge to act on feelings of being overwhelmed and in pain. Ten minutes can give you enough time to think it through and find another way to cope or manage, such as writing down your thoughts, listening to music or doing something physical like going for a walk or run.
  2. Go somewhere where you can’t self-harm. This might be a shared space at home like the living room (remove all sharps and self-harm objects first) or a school (have no self-harm objects on you). Try to wait out the urge to self-harm while in this environment, and try to think of another way to deal with your pain while you wait.
  3. Purge yourself and environment of sharps. Get rid of any objects that you use, or could use, to self-harm. Go through your bedroom and bathroom and throw away anything that you have used or may use for this purpose. By removing potentially harmful items from your environment, you can relieve some of the impulse you might have to self-harm.
  4. Talk to someone. Instead of acting on the urge to self-harm, call someone that you know could help – a counsellor, a trusted family member or friend or a crisis phone line number. Visit Getting Help for more places to get help.
  5. Use a less risky method to relieve feelings. Some people have had success by using a less risky way to feel physical pain – like snapping an elastic band on your wrist or working out really hard.
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