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Self-Harm Awareness: Understanding the Drive to Hurt Yourself 

Friday, March 01, 2024
Photo for Self-Harm Awareness Month shows a distraught woman looking up, feeling shame from others.

March is Self-Harm Awareness Month

Lacking skills to cope with emotional distress leads some people to harm themselves. Self-harm, also known as non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI), typically begins in the pre-teen and teenage years, a time of significant emotional changes. While those who self-harm don’t intend to end their lives, the injuries they inflict can be serious and, in some cases, life-threatening. 

During Self-Harm Awareness Month (also known as Self-Injury Awareness Month), NewBridge Services urges everyone to learn about the warning signs and self-harm treatments to develop healthy alternatives to self-harm for emotional relief. 

“It can be overwhelming and scary when sensations of sadness, anxiety, shame and distress surge up inside.  You look for immediate relief from this scary mixture of emotion,” NewBridge CEO Michelle Borden said. “There is real hope for alternatives to self-harm through individual and group counseling.”  

Self-Harm Awareness: Why do People Self-Harm? 

Research shows people self-harm to distract themselves from painful feelings, for self-punishment, or to feel something rather than feel empty. Individuals who self-harm describe feeling disconnected from themselves (dissociation), leading to analgesia, when pain is not felt, explained Viki Ferlauto, executive director of counseling services at NewBridge. “This is how someone can put their hand on a hot stove or cut themselves without the same reaction as those who do not experience this state of being,” she said.  

The sense of relief or release after self-harming reinforces the behavior. Self-harming typically begins in adolescence between the ages of 12 and 14 and is more common in girls. Most teens who self-harm stop doing so by adulthood. 

A 2018 meta-analysis found that 17% of preteens and teenagers have self-harmed at least once. For adults, the rate is about 5%. Youth who have depression and anxiety disorder have a higher likelihood to engage in self-harm, as do those with developmental disabilities, including autism. 

Self-Harm Awareness: Signs & Symptoms

Teenage cutting is the most common and recognized form of self-harm, but there are others. Some people burn, bruise, bite or scratch themselves, pierce their skin, or bang their heads. The acts often happen in private, and typically, injuries are inflicted on arms, legs, chest and stomach. 

These are warning signs and symptoms of self-harm, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: 

  • Scars 
  • Wearing long sleeves or pants, even in hot weather 
  • Talking about feeling worthless or helpless 
  • Fresh cuts, bruises, bite marks, or burns 
  • Keeping sharp objects on hand 
  • Frequent reports of accidental injury 
  • Emotional and behavioral instability and unpredictability 

Certain risk factors can contribute to the likelihood of engaging in self-harm, according to a 2022 meta-analysis. 

  • Having a mental disorder 
  • Adverse childhood experiences 
  • Bullying 
  • Problem behaviors 
  • Low health literacy 

How to Stop Self-Harming

Many people engage in self-harm a few times and stop, while for others, it becomes a habit and can have addictive features, Ferlauto said. The behavior releases endorphins, commonly called the pleasure hormone, she said.  

Self-harm can be effectively treated with therapy, and in some cases, in combination with medication. Treatment begins with a thorough assessment to get to the root cause of why a child (or adult) is doing it. For the self-harmer who wants to stop the behavior, start by telling a trusted person. Parents can contact their family’s pediatrician or a mental health care professional to assess their child for depression and suicide risk. Therapy can focus on exploring past experiences/emotions, learning to recognize negative thought patterns, and adopting positive coping skills. 

Comparing Self-Harm and Suicide  

Self-harming is not a suicide attempt and there isn’t evidence that self-harming leads to suicidal thoughts; the individual who self-harms wants to feel better, not end their life. That said, self-harm and suicidal ideations share risk factors, according to the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery 

“There is no evidence that practicing NSSI causes suicidal thoughts and behaviors. However, there is evidence that the practice of NSSI lowers the inhibition to suicide behaviors since it provides practice damaging the body,” the authors wrote. 

Supporting Someone Who Self-Harms 

If you discover a loved one or friend is self-harming, offer to help them get help in a nonjudgemental way. Don’t yell or criticize, which can increase their stress. Help them find resources and support them through treatment. If you live with a person who self-harms, remove or secure items they might use to self-injure. Be a role model for positive coping skills to life’s challenges. This Mayo Clinic video provides an easy-to-understand explanation of self-harm and advice on how to deal with it. 

During Self-Harm Awareness Month, learn the facts about self-harm and take action if the situation warrants. If you or someone you care about needs help, contact NewBridge Services at services@newbridge.org or (973) 316-9333. If you are in crisis, call or text 988, the national suicide and prevention hotline. For more than 60 years, NewBridge Services has remained committed to bringing balance to people’s lives through counseling, housing and education. Please support this important work by making a donation at newbridge.org/donate. 

© 2024 Newbridge Services. E-mail And Voicemail Cannot Replace Counseling.