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Content reviewed and updated: 03/02/22

Self-Harm Awareness: Recognizing the Signs and Getting Help

Note from Ahead:

If you or someone you know struggles with self-harm, contact either the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800)273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line by texting “HOME” to 741741 for immediate support. To learn more about the signs of self-harm and how to eliminate stigma around self-harm, continue reading.

Self-harm is not an official mental health condition, but it’s common and affects more people than you think. People who self-harm may feel trapped in a cycle of self-harming habits to relieve overwhelming pain or emotions. For Self-Harm Awareness Month, we encourage our community to become more aware of the signs of self-injury and initiate honest conversations about self-harming behaviors. 

About 17% of people will self-harm in their lifetime. But with education and self-harm awareness, we can ensure that more people have access to the help they need. In this article, we highlight:

  • The various warning signs of self-harm to watch for
  • How to have an honest conversation about self-harm
  • Getting help for self-harm

If you or someone you know are prone to self-harm, having support and understanding from others is key to recovery. There are people who can help you learn that self-harm isn’t the only answer to overwhelming emotions or problems. Use this article to recognize when to get help for self-harm and uplift those who struggle with it to help break the cycle of self-harm. 

Signs of Self-Harm to Watch For

Self-harm can take the form of many different behaviors, including cutting, burning, scratching or non-lethal overdoses. There are also much more subtle signs of self-harm that tend to go unnoticed or dismissed, such as:

  • Withdrawal or isolation from everyday life
  • Signs of anxiety/depression such as low mood, lack of motivation or interest
  • Changes in mood
  • Constantly putting others’ needs first
  • Drastic changes in eating/sleeping habits
  • Talking about self-harm behaviors
  • Abusing drugs or alcohol
  • Risk-taking behaviour (substance misuse, unprotected sexual acts)
  • Unexplained cuts, bruises or marks
  • Wearing long-sleeved shirts or long pants, even in hot weather

Although these warning signs can suggest self-harm, they might indicate something other than self-harm. For example, a person can experience changes in their eating and sleeping habits due to stress or trauma. People can also experience symptoms of depression due to underlying mental health conditions. 

Being aware of the warning signs of self-harm can help you identify when a loved one is struggling. But it is very important to understand that there may be no warning signs at all. People who self-harm are usually secretive about their habits and might not “seem like the type to self-harm.” It can be difficult to tell who is struggling in their personal lives. That’s why it’s important to raise self-harm awareness and create a safe environment for people to share their experiences with self-harm.

The bottom line is to be open and honest if you suspect someone is prone to self-harming. Make time to check on yourself and your loved ones, regardless of whether they seem like they are struggling or not. You never know what someone is going through unless you ask.

The Truth About Self-Harming Behavior

Self-harm is not about seeking attention and it’s not a suicide attempt. People who don’t self-harm might find it difficult to understand why people resort to self-harm. This lack of understanding or awareness leads to the misconceptions that self-harming behaviors are a “cry for attention”, or that self-harm is the same as suicide.  But there’s much more to understand about self-harming behavior and the reasoning behind it. 

Most of the time, self-harm is an outlet for people to cope with overwhelming thoughts and feelings. When someone experiences a build-up of emotional pain and suffering, they might use self-harm as a way to temporarily relieve that pain. Once a person uses self-harm to deal with life’s difficulties over and over again, it becomes a habitual cycle of dealing with emotions through self-harm.

It can be misleading to label people who self-harm as “suicidal” because non-suicidal self-harm is different from being suicidal. While non-suicidal self-harm involves deliberate self-harm that may or may not result in death, being suicidal means a person attempts to harm themselves with the intent to end their life. 

It is important to note, however, that there is a strong association between self-harm and suicide attempts. The more frequent self-harm behaviors occur, the likelihood of suicide attempts also increases. A research study involving college students found that students who engaged in 20 or more acts of self-harm were about 3.5 times more likely to attempt suicide compared to those who engaged in fewer self-injury actions. Whether it happens once or 20 times, self-injury is a serious behavior that should not be ignored. 

Self-harm can affect anyone. It can affect your family member, your close friend, a coworker or you. However, the rates vary among certain populations. Teens, college students, gay and bisexual people, and women show greater rates of self-injury. Other groups like adults and men might be more likely to underreport self-injury. 

Self-harm can also co-occur with many mental health disorders, like eating disorders, substance use disorders, depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder and more. By learning about self-harm, we can raise awareness about these behaviors and become better equipped to recognize the warning signs.

Having an Open Conversation about Self-Harm

Self-harm, feelings of worthlessness, and mental health can be extremely difficult to talk about. Being the first person to start that conversation isn’t easy. But reaching out to someone who feels trapped in a cycle of self-harming habits can be an opportunity for you to offer support. 

Maybe that person has never felt a sense of support or understanding from others about their self-harm. Or maybe they haven’t built up the courage to ask for help. Initiating these conversations may be difficult, but it provides the person who self-harms an opportunity to share their story. 

Before bringing up the topic of self-harm to someone you think is struggling, remember to remain open-minded, calm and supportive. Here are a few tips to help you have an open conversation about self-harm.

  • Ease into the conversation by mentioning things you’ve noticed and that you’re simply worried about them. 
  • Acknowledge how difficult it might be to open up about their mental health struggles.
  • Try not to focus on their specific self-harm behaviors. Ask about their feelings and what they are going through instead.
  • Try not to react shocked or disgusted. Negative reactions might reinforce feelings of shame in the other person and make them avoid the topic.
  • Know when to seek immediate help. If you believe someone is in immediate danger or has injuries that need medical attention, help them get the help they need.
  • Stay positive and offer to help them find professional support. You can offer to help them set up a mental health appointment, but don’t try to force them into anything.
  • Avoid giving ultimatums. Doing so might break the other person’s trust in you and seem like you are trying to punish them for their self-harming habits.

Talking to someone about their self-harm won’t always result in a positive reaction, but showing them that they are not alone is key to their recovery. It’s also an opportunity to build stronger connections and support one another. Let’s start opening up about mental health and use mental health conversations to strengthen our relationships.

Having an Open Conversation about Self-Harm

It is possible to manage your feelings without self-harm. Things may feel overwhelming and impossible to overcome, but you won’t always feel the same way you do now. If you’re struggling to break the cycle of self-harm, it’s time to get help.

Getting help for self-harm can look like opening up to a friend, parent, family member or mental health provider. You can also find support from entire communities dedicated to helping you recover from self-harm. You’re not alone and there are people who can support you in your recovery.

Don’t know where to start? Here is a list of self-harm resources that are available for you when you’re ready.

If you find it difficult to talk about self-harm with the people close to you, share your story with a licensed mental health provider. At Ahead, our providers can help you make sense of complicated emotions while helping you develop healthier coping habits. With professional guidance, the path to recovery and treatment becomes more clear. The more support you have, the more confidence you can build to break the cycle of self-harming habits. 

However you decide to get help, the important thing to remember is that self-harm is not the only answer to your problems. There are healthier ways to cope with our mental health than hurting ourselves. And the good news is, you already have the ability to change self-harming behaviors. All you need is a little support and guidance to help you form new habits.

Celebrating the path of recovery

Recovery may not be easy or smooth-sailing, but deciding to get help is a sign of profound strength. Be proud of yourself for addressing your needs and figuring out what is best for your mental health. By learning about self-harm and recognizing when to get help, we can help eliminate the stigma around self-harming behaviors and help people on their path to recovery.

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