Why People Self Harm and Ways to Help Them

Some people can’t fathom hurting themselves by burning or cutting their skin. For others, it’s a habit they’ve developed to help them function in life. But why do people self harm? The reasons are myriad; they often stem from a desperate need to cope with a mental health condition. That was the case with Valarie, who would cut herself at night as a way to deal with her anxiety and depression. 

Self harm occurs when someone deliberately hurts themselves. It’s usually not severe enough to cause life-threatening damage, but that can happen accidentally either through the act of self harm or a secondary infection that happens as a result of the self-inflicted injury.

The reasons people self harm are personal, and sometimes there are several factors that lead someone to hurt themselves. The roots of these self harm triggers can fall into different categories. Some people, like Valarie, are dealing with overpowering emotions or troubling, stressful circumstances, and they don’t know how to properly express themselves. Self harm is a way to deal with those overwhelming issues. People who self harm as a coping mechanism may be struggling with depression, anxiety, intense anger or deep-seated pain.

Other people use self harm as a mechanism to release stress or tension. Others view it as a distraction from their issues or a way to exert control over a life that seems unmanageable or unpredictable. If someone has become numbed to their problems, inflicting pain on themselves is a way to feel something; it can also be a form of punishment for someone who believes they’re worthless. When people lack the words to express their agony, the scars of self harm serve as a cry for help. Cutting into or bruising the flesh may bring an initial rush of pleasure. But that goes away, replaced by shame and a sense of hopelessness. It doesn’t eliminate the issues at the root of the problem.

In the end, self harm never offers the hope people truly seek. It’s important for people to get professional help for self harm behaviors, said clinician Nicole Paglione. But it may be hard to share their stories to get the resources they need. That’s why families and loved ones should know how to help someone who self harms.

Types of Self Harm

People of every age can self harm, but most are teenagers or young adults. That’s because feelings are more intense at this age, and younger people may not have the communication tools to verbalize what’s wrong. 

Certain risk factors may increase the likelihood of self harm. These include childhood trauma or abuse, friends who also self harm, substance abuse and mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders and borderline personality disorders. 

Paglione said there are several methods of self harm, such as:

  • Cutting or scratching skin with a sharp object
  • Burning (e.g., with a lit match or cigarette)
  • Punching or hitting
  • Etching words, numbers or symbols on the skin
  • Putting something sharp under the skin

Signs of Self Harm

People frequently focus their self harm actions on the abdominal area or the limbs. Valarie said she has scars up and down her arms from cutting herself. Sometimes it can be hard to see the results of self harm in certain areas of the body, but there are telltale signs concerned friends or family members can watch for:

  • A large number of scars, especially if they seem to form a pattern
  • Marks on the skin similar to rug burns
  • The appearance of cuts, scratches, bite marks, etc.
  • Infection or an accidental injury resulting from self harm
  • Clothing that covers most of the body (i.e., long pants or long sleeves) regardless of the weather or season
  • Problematic behaviors that disrupt relationships, school, work, activities, etc. 
  • Mood changes (impulsiveness, feelings of unworthiness)

How to Talk Someone Out of Self Harm

It can be scary to think about a loved one causing themselves pain. But there is a deeper pain that needs to be addressed, so it’s necessary to speak up to provide help.

Parents with children engaging in self harm should contact their pediatrician or family doctor. The doctor will want to see the child in order to assess the situation and make the proper referrals for physical or mental healthcare. As frightening as this can be for parents, they should avoid reacting out of fear and panicking or yelling. Calm, steady support will reassure a child that they don’t need to be ashamed of sharing their hurt. 

Teens or young adults may confide in a peer about their self harm habits, but that’s heavy knowledge for someone to handle. If a friend says they’ve been cutting or burning themselves, urge them to talk to an adult they trust. That can be parents, a spiritual adviser, a teacher or school counselor or an adult relative or family friend. If an adult is self harming, offer nonjudgmental concern and support, and encourage them to get professional help. Seeking help is vital for replacing self harming with healthier coping strategies, Paglione said.

If someone says a self harm incident has caused a serious injury, call 911 immediately. 

Replacing Self Harm with Hope

Anyone who is stuck in a pattern of self harming can take inspiration from Valarie. To cope with her mental health issues, she smoked marijuana in the daytime and cut herself at night. She even attempted suicide a few years ago. She felt alone. She thought she was the only person going through something like this.

When Valarie bravely told others what she was experiencing, she realized she wasn’t alone at all. In fact, she realized that there were many others who could relate to her because they were feeling the same kind of pain. She’s in the process of building a happier, healthier life that’s free of substance abuse or self harm.

Viewers can see Valarie tell her story on TAG. This streaming service is an evolution in healing, promoting greater understanding of mental health conditions. Real people are the stars of these stories, discussing their own mental health journeys. These videos are supplemented with videos from clinicians offering their professional insight. TAG is a safe space where people can learn more about their own mental health issues without any stigma or judgment. Visit TAG today to advance your knowledge of mental health. 

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