A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Understanding self-harm: 3 things to know

Woman sitting alone deep in thought - Mental health stigma

People who self-harm are often trying to tell us something about the emotional pain they are in.

Self-harm is an often misunderstood act that some people do to express or cope with emotional pain. A common misconception about self-harm is that it’s exclusive to women. In fact, between 30-40 percent of those who self-harm are male, according to the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery.

Self-harm is more common in kids and teens than adults. Only 5% of adults engage in this behavior in their adult lifetimes, according to the American Psychological Association. Self-harm behaviors people engage in include cutting, scratching, pinching and, rarely, burning.

Why people self-harm

“Basically people engage in self-harm because of an inability to regulate their emotions. They feel overwhelmed by them, or they just feel numb,” said Wendy Chryst, a licensed clinical social worker and mental health counselor at Marshfield Clinic Health System. “Self-harming is a way for people to feel something again or to distract themselves from painful emotions. Some people may do it as a form of punishing themselves. For some people, they find a momentary sense of relief from their emotional pain.”

Chryst said it is often hard for people who self-harm to explain or understand exactly why they are engaging in the behavior. According to the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery, people who repeatedly self-harm “have reported being diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorder, anorexia, bulimia, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and/or anxiety and panic disorders.”

Self-harm is rarely an attempt at suicide, Chryst said. In fact, research shows that people self-harm in order to find a way to cope with their pain and avoid suicide.

Advice for parents

For parents whose children are self-harming the emotions can be complex. Anger, guilt, sadness and denial are common reactions in parents.

“Sometimes parents will say their child is just trying to get attention, using that word with a negative connotation,” Chryst said. “But you have to reframe it. They’re asking for attention because they’re in pain and need help. People who self-harm are trying to tell us something.”

Chryst said she likes to provide parents research so they can understand the behavior better and empathize with the reasons their child may be doing it. She also said parents should put away items that their child could use to self-harm, like razor blades or knives.

“I think the biggest thing parents need to do, and we need to do as a society, is to look underneath the behavior at the reasons why,” Chryst said. “If you’re just judging the behavior, you may think the child is rebelling or seeking attention just for the sake of attention. But they’re in pain. It’s like when your kid has a tantrum. They’re trying to tell you something, and you need to open yourself up to what that is.”

Ways to seek help

If you or someone you know is self-harming, it’s important to seek professional help. If you or someone you know is suicidal, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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