Non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI), also known as self-harm, a concerning behavior often found in teenagers, refers to the intentional infliction of injury upon oneself. This alarming act is usually a manifestation of emotional distress and mental health struggles.
In teens, self-harm is often a secretive way of coping with overwhelming feelings, such as anxiety, depression, or trauma. It's a physical expression of internal turmoil and a cry for help, making it crucial for parents, educators, and peers to recognize the signs.
Understanding self-harm in teens is the first step toward providing the necessary support and intervention for their well-being and recovery.
Self-harm, also known as self-injury, is the deliberate act of causing physical harm to one's body as a way to cope with emotional pain, intense anger, or frustration. In teenagers, this behavior is often a reflection of deep psychological distress and is not typically intended as a suicidal act.
Rather, self-harm is a harmful method to:
It's a sign that a teen is struggling to cope with something in their life and needs support. This behavior can have serious implications for a teen's mental health, including the risk of escalating self-injury, developing chronic mental health issues, or even accidental life-threatening injuries.
Teens may resort to various forms of self-harm, each with its unique dangers and indicators. Common methods include:
These methods are often hidden under clothing or explained away as accidents, making it imperative for those close to teens to be vigilant and empathetic in recognizing these signs of distress.
Self-harm in teens is a complex issue rooted in emotional coping, control, and expression. Often, it serves as a misguided method for handling intense emotions.
For many teens, the physical act of harming themselves can momentarily provide relief from emotional distress. This can include feelings of sadness, loneliness, anxiety, or anger. The act of self-injury might momentarily distract them from emotional pain or help them feel a sense of release.
Self-harm can be a way for teens to exert control in their lives. Adolescence is a period filled with changes and uncertainties. For some teens, their lives may feel chaotic or beyond their control. Self-harm can emerge as a way to exert some form of control over their bodies when they can't control other aspects of their lives.
Self-harm often acts as a form of expression. Teens struggling with deep emotional pain might find it difficult to express their feelings verbally. For them, self-injury becomes a physical representation of their inner turmoil. It’s a silent scream for help, a tangible manifestation of psychological pain that they cannot otherwise communicate.
Understanding these underlying reasons is key to addressing the issue and providing the right support and intervention.
Non-Suicidal Self-Injury (NSSI) refers to the deliberate, self-inflicted damage to one’s body tissue without suicidal intent. While NSSI itself is not classified as a mental illness, it is a serious behavioral issue that often indicates underlying mental health challenges. In the mental health field, NSSI is recognized as a symptom or manifestation of deeper psychological distress.
Self-harm is frequently associated with mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety disorders, borderline personality disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It's often a physical response to the intense and overwhelming emotions that accompany these conditions.
For instance, individuals with depression may turn to self-harm as a coping mechanism for their deep-seated sadness and hopelessness. Similarly, those with borderline personality disorder might engage in self-injury as an expression of their extreme emotional swings and identity confusion.
Furthermore, self-harm can be linked to experiences of trauma, abuse, or major life stressors. In such cases, the act of self-injuring can be a way to externalize internal pain or regain a sense of control over one's emotions or life circumstances.
It's crucial to recognize self-harm as a signal that a teen may need professional help to address underlying mental health issues. Understanding and addressing these root causes is essential for effective treatment and recovery.
Identifying self-harm in teens requires vigilance to both visible signs and behavioral indicators, as many adolescents go to great lengths to hide their self-injurious actions.
Recognizing these symptoms is the first step in providing the necessary support and intervention. It’s important to approach the situation with empathy and understanding and to seek professional help. Early identification and intervention can significantly improve outcomes for teens struggling with self-harm.
Social media has a profound impact on teen behavior and mental health, influencing self-harm in several ways. Cyberbullying is a significant factor, where negative online interactions can deeply affect a teen's self-esteem and mental well-being. Teens who are victims of cyberbullying often experience feelings of isolation, depression, and anxiety, which can lead to self-harming behaviors as a coping mechanism.
Additionally, the world of social media is rife with comparison. Teens are constantly bombarded with images and stories that portray unrealistic standards of beauty, success, and happiness. This relentless comparison can lead to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem, driving some teens towards self-harm as a way to cope with these negative feelings.
Moreover, the portrayal of self-harm in the media can have a significant impact. Social media platforms and certain websites may inadvertently glamorize or trivialize self-harm, influencing teens' perceptions and actions.
Exposure to graphic content related to self-injury can normalize the behavior or present it as a viable option for dealing with emotional pain. This dangerous portrayal necessitates a responsible media approach and increased parental and educational awareness to mitigate the potential negative influences of social media on teens' mental health and behaviors.
Recent years have witnessed a concerning increase in self-harm among teenagers. Studies and surveys consistently show a rise in cases, indicating that this is a growing issue in youth mental health.
One study (Klonsky et al) reported lifetime rates among adolescents are about 15% to 20%, and onset typically occurs around age 13 or 14. Klonsky further reported that approximately 34% of the adolescents studied were engaged in some form of NSSI at some point in their lives, with 16% of the overall sample reporting evidence of repetitive NSSI in the past 6 months.
Reports from healthcare providers and school counselors have noted a significant uptick in self-injury behaviors among adolescents. This trend is alarming, considering the potential for these behaviors to escalate.
Self-harm often starts as a coping mechanism for dealing with emotional pain, stress, or trauma. Initially, the injuries might be minor, but over time, there is a significant risk of escalation. As teens become more accustomed to self-harm as a method of coping, they may start inflicting more severe injuries. This escalation can stem from a need for a more intense sensation to achieve the same level of emotional relief or from a deepening of the underlying psychological issues.
Furthermore, while self-harm is not inherently a suicidal act, the behavior significantly increases the risk of suicidal tendencies. The psychological distress that leads to self-harm can also lead to suicidal thoughts and actions.
In some cases, what starts as self-harm can evolve into attempts to take one's own life, especially if the underlying issues are not addressed. It's crucial for parents, educators, and healthcare professionals to be aware of this potential for escalation and to intervene early. Providing appropriate mental health support and resources is essential in reversing this dangerous progression and helping teens find healthier ways to cope with their emotions.
Addressing self-harm in teens is a delicate matter, requiring sensitivity, understanding, and patience. Here are some strategies for parents:
Dealing with a teen who self-harms can be challenging, but with the right approach and professional support, parents can play a crucial role in their child's path to recovery.
In emergencies involving self-harm, quick and compassionate action is crucial. Long-term, proactive safety planning and creating a supportive environment are essential for preventing future incidents and promoting healing and recovery.
Clearfork Academy is a Christ-centered treatment facility that focuses on treating teenagers who are struggling with issues such as trauma and substance abuse. Our NSSI treatment focuses on healing your teen’s body, mind, and spirit so that they have the best chance of a happy and healthy future.
Klonsky ED, Victor SE, Saffer BY. 2014. Nonsuicidal self-injury: what we know, and what we need to know. Can J Psychiatry. 2014;59(11):565–8.
Peterson, J. et al. 2008. Nonsuicidal Self-injury in Adolescents. Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2008 Nov; 5(11): 20–26. Published online 2008 NovSchwarz., J. 2006. 2006. Self-inflicted Injury Can Escalate, Study Shows. University of Washington.
Anna graduated from Texas Tech University in 2012 with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and from Texas Wesleyan University in 2015 with a Master of Arts in Professional Counseling. Anna has been in the mental health field since 2015 and held a variety of leadership roles since 2017 in Residential, Inpatient, PHP/IOP and private practice levels of care. Anna approaches therapy and leadership with the mindset that we are all one life event from seeking care ourselves and aims to foster an environment in which both the client and staff well-being are the priority. Anna is an introverted foodie who enjoys reading, watching dateline/sports and spending time with her husband, daughter, and fur babies, Dora & Teddy.