Self-harm, also known as non-suicidal self-injury, or NSSI, is a compulsive behavior usually in response to depression, anxiety, and/or extreme stress. Teens are the most common sufferers of this mental health disorder, with more than one in 10 teens engaging in at least one act of self-harm. NSSI often co-occurs with other mental health disorders. For instance, self-harm and depression are commonly diagnosed together, as are self-harm and anxiety or OCD. When teens harm themselves intentionally, it’s a warning sign that something else is going on, and self-harm treatment is the recommended immediate course of action.
To learn more about the signs of self-harm, underlying reasons, and self-harm treatment near you, reach out to Pennsylvania Adult & Teen Challenge (PAATC). If you use our online form to connect or call us at 844.442.8673, we can answer your questions and help you decide on a safe and healthy course of action.
Why Do Teens Harm Themselves?
Many teens who engage in self-harm are coping with overwhelming and often turbulent emotions. Others have withdrawn and feel numb. Interestingly, the chemicals that the brain releases in response to pain, such as endorphins, also produce a sense of general well-being. Self-harm can have the same effect that an opioid would have on mood and well-being — at least temporarily.
A teen may engage in self-harm to:
- Calm angry feelings
- Mitigate panic, anxiety, or extreme stress
- Ease general depression
- Show they are in trouble in order to get help
- Punish themselves
- Express self-loathing
- Feel something in order to escape from numbness
Regardless of the reason for self-harming behavior, there is every reason to break the cycle by accessing self-harm treatment for the suffering teen.
Self-Harm – Who and How?
Though self-harm is more common among girls than boys, LGBTQ and trans youth are at the highest risk of engaging in such behaviors. Some of the ways teenagers will hurt themselves include:
- Cutting the skin (most common)
- Burning the skin
- Hitting, slapping, or punching the body
- Plucking hair, eyebrows, or eyelashes
- Inserting objects into the body
- Excoriation disorder (scratching off healing scabs to keep wounds open)
Self-injury is cyclic and aligns with tumultuous emotions, such as the rise of anxiety or rage. A teenager who self-harms tries to break the cycle before it peaks by releasing the strong emotion through pain over which they have control.
Signs of Self-Harm
How do you know your teen is struggling with NSSI? People who injure themselves go to great lengths to keep the signs hidden from the rest of the world. Knowing what to look for can help you help the teenager in your life.
If your teen has any of the following pre-conditions of self-harm, you may want to investigate further:
- Low self-esteem or a tendency to harshly self-criticize
- Addictive behaviors or substance abuse
- History (or ongoing experience) of victimization, bullying, abuse, or neglect
- Painful loss or losses and/or overwhelming grief
- A mental health diagnosis
- Family history of NSSI
Look for behaviors that may indicate they are trying to hide evidence of self-harm or that are self-punishing. Mental health red flags may warrant trying to find evidence of self-harm as well. Here is a general list of things to look out for:
- Unexplained cuts, bruises, and burns, typically on arms, thighs, wrists, or chest
- Refusing to change in front of other people, such as in the sports locker room or a shared sibling or dormitory bedroom
- Clothing themselves in outfits that hide their skin, regardless of the weather
- Suddenly wearing hats 24/7
- Unexplained sudden weight loss or gain
- Penciled-in eyebrows
- Speaking in terms of self-hatred and self-punishment
- Signs of depression or anxiety
- Panic attacks
- Apathy and loss of motivation
If your teen shows any signs of self-harm and depression, anxiety, or self-hatred, it’s time to get help. Though chronic self-harm is distinct from suicidal ideation, it’s a risk factor for suicide and must be treated promptly.
Identify Signs of Self-Harm and Depression With the Help of PAATC
Our clinical staff can support your teen to leave self-harm behind by addressing the underlying factors that have led them to this place. Mental health treatment, addressing any co-occurring substance abuse issues, and the support of compassionate clinicians and peers with lived experience all combine to bring mental health and whole-person well-being to your struggling teen.