Warning Signs of Teen Self-Injury

Self-Injury refers to injuring yourself on purpose. Also known as self-harm, self-injury is a symptom of extreme emotional distress. Unfortunately, this act is becoming increasingly common in teens.

A recent analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control reveals that up to 30 percent of teenage girls say they have intentionally injured themselves. Moreover, they did so without aiming to commit suicide. In addition, about one in 10 boys engaged in self-inflicted injury. Overall, almost 18 percent of teens used methods of self harm.

These rates represent a steep rise over the past 10 years, especially among girls. Between 2001 and 2015, self-injury increased by 166 percent in girls aged 10 to 14. Furthermore, self-harm rose by 62 percent in girls aged 15 to 19.

A particularly prevalent method of self-harm in teens is cutting. Since 2009, the rate of cutting by younger girls has increased by 18.8 percent each year. As a result, this trend has become an ongoing danger for teens.

Teenagers and Self-Injury: Why They Do It

Why do teenagers cut themselves or use other forms of self-mutilation? Teens who cut or burn themselves are not attempting suicide. Instead, they are using methods of self harm as an unhealthy coping mechanism to deal with difficult emotions.

Self harm in teens is a way for them to release feelings of pain, tension, and anxiety. These painful emotions may include anger, shame, grief, guilt, and self-loathing. They see self-injury as a way to feel more in control of their emotions, Or they use it to distract themselves from their emotions or life circumstances. In addition, they may self-harm because they want to punish themselves for what they see as their faults or flaws.

Moreover, teens sometimes injure themselves because the physical pain of self-harming seems better than numbness and emptiness. These are signs of depression. Thus, cutting and depression are often linked.

Self-injury may bring a temporary feeling of calm and a release of tension. However, the painful emotions quickly return. Some teens self-injure only a few times and then stop. But others continue repeatedly, over a long period of time. Therefore, self-harming can turn into a compulsive behavior.

Newport Academy Empowering Teens Resources: Self-injury

Is Self-Injury a Mental Illness?

Self-injury is not a mental illness. Rather, it is an unhealthy coping mechanism that requires professional treatment.

In addition, it can be a symptom of a mental health condition. Several illnesses are associated with self-harming, including borderline personality disorder, depression, eating disorders, anxiety, and posttraumatic distress disorder. Furthermore, teens who injure themselves often do so while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Teens and young adults are at the highest risk for self-injury. Some experts believe that teens who have experienced trauma, neglect, or abuse or at higher risk. But older adults sometimes injure themselves as well.

While it is not a method for suicide, self harm in teens may have an increased risk of suicide. Therefore, cutting and other forms of self-harm must be addressed with professional treatment as soon as they are discovered.

Peers, Social Media, and Self-Injury

Teens usually self-harm in private. However, they may use self-injury as a way of bonding with others who also experience distress and pain. Moreover, teens with friends who self-injure are more likely to try it themselves. In addition, teens seeking relief from painful emotions can easily find information online about how to self-injure.

Technology may be linked to self-harm in other ways. Most relevant, research shows that social media activity increases unhappiness in teenagers. Therefore, experts suggest that teens’ increased use of technology over the past decade may be linked to the increasing prevalence of self-harming behavior. Moreover, girls use social media more often than boys—and they also self-injure more frequently.

In addition, consumption of digital media takes away from time spent on healthier activities, such as sleeping, exercising, or spending time in nature. As a result, teens have fewer opportunities to develop positive methods for coping with stress.

Recent research shows that depressive symptoms and suicide rates among adolescents increased between 2010 and 2015, especially among females. And teenagers who spent more time on social media and smartphones were more likely to report mental health issues. Moreover, adolescents who spent more time on non-screen activities, such as face-to-face social interaction, sports and exercise, homework, and print media, were less likely to report mental health issues.

Methods of Self-Injury

Cutting with a knife or other sharp object is a common method of self harm. Often teens cut themselves as a kind of ritual that leaves patterns on the skin. They may carve words or symbols on their skin.

But teens also use other methods of self-harm, including one or more of the following:

  • Scratching or biting the skin
  • Burning their skin with lit matches, cigarettes, or other hot, sharp objects
  • Hitting or punching themselves or the walls
  • Piercing their skin with sharp objects
  • Pulling out hair
  • Picking at scabs and wounds
  • Poisoning
  • Disordered eating
  • Inserting objects into the body
  • Overdosing on drugs or drinking to excess
  • Exercising to the point of collapse or injury
  • Getting into fights in which they are likely to be hurt
  • Banging head or body against walls and hard objects
  • Driving recklessly
  • Having unsafe sex.

Self-Harm Symptoms

Parents and other adults who work with teens should learn the red flags related to self harm symptoms. Here are some signs and symptoms that may indicate that a teen is self-harming:

  • Scars or scabs
  • Unexplained cuts, scratches, bruises or other wounds, often on the wrists, arms, thighs, or torso, which they explain as the result of accidents
  • Keeping sharp objects on hand
  • Wearing clothes that cover up the skin, such as long sleeves or long pants, even in hot weather
  • Impulsive and unstable behavior
  • Expressing feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
  • Difficulties with relationships
  • Blood stains on bedding, clothing, towels, or tissues
  • Having sharp objects in their possession, including razors, safety pins, nail scissors, knives, needles, shards of glass, or bottle caps
  • Spending long periods of time alone, often in the bathroom or bedroom
  • Increased isolation and social withdrawal
  • Avoiding situations in which they need to reveal skin, such as swimming or changing in a locker room.

Complications and Consequences of Self-Injury

Self-injury can cause dangerous and even fatal health consequences. Furthermore, it can have a continued negative impact on mental health.

Possible complications of self-harm include:

  • Increased shame, guilt, and low self-esteem
  • Wound infections
  • Permanent scars or disfigurement
  • Broken bones
  • Isolation that results in losing friendships
  • Higher risk of major depression, drug and alcohol addiction, and suicide.

Newport Academy Empowering Teens Resources: Self-injury

What to Do When a Loved One is Self-Harming

When a loved one is self-harming, encouraging them to get treatment is the most important goal. Parents or guardians should take the necessary steps to get professional help for their child or teen. Your pediatrician is a good place to start.

Teenagers whose friends are struggling with self-harm should suggest that they talk to their parents, a school counselor, a teacher, or another trusted adult.

Subsequently, family members and friends can support loved ones in a variety of ways. First, don’t be angry with your loved one, even if you’re scared or confused. Yelling, threats, and criticism won’t help. In fact, they may even increase the risk of continued self-mutilation.

Also, face your own discomfort or confusion about self-harming. Moreover, educate yourself about this behavior and why it happens. Thus, you can learn about the symptoms, the underlying issues, and how to help prevent relapse.

Furthermore, remember not to judge the person. Most likely, they already feel distressed and ashamed. Express your caring and your support, no matter what. Let the person know that you’re available to talk about what they’re going through if they’d like to share. In addition, find ways to spend time together doing healthy, positive activities.

Treatment for Self-Harming Behavior

Treatment for self-injury addresses the root causes of the self-destructive behavior. Therefore, treatment for anxiety or depression may be necessary. Other underlying issues might include low self-esteem, dysfunctional family dynamics, or other mental health conditions, such as borderline personality disorder.

In addition, teens learn new coping mechanisms. As a result, they discover healthy ways of coping with difficult circumstances or painful emotions.

For some adolescents who injure themselves, residential treatment may be appropriate. Consequently, psychotherapists may offer one or more of the following modalities.

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) helps teens to identify and modify thought and behavior patterns. Therefore, they learn how to shift their outlook from the negative toward the positive. Furthermore, teens learn to identify triggers for self-harm.
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy: Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) helps teens acknowledge that they are using self-harm to cope with underlying issues. Subsequently, they develop ways to modify this behavior. In addition, they address the root causes of self-harming.
  • Meditation and yoga: An increasing number of studies show that mindfulness meditation can help support mental health. Meditation encourages us to witness our emotions from a distance rather than getting caught up in them. Therefore, teens learn to cope with their emotions and manage distress without self-harming. In fact, a review study at Johns Hopkins found that meditation was just as effective as antidepressants in treating symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Replacing Self-Injury with Positive Coping Skills

Here are some effective strategies that can help teens replace self-injury with positive experiences. Moreover, these approaches will help teenagers build self-esteem and authentic connections.

Social support: Multiple studies have shown that social relationships improve mental and physical health. The more support we have, the more resilient we are. Teens who self-injure will benefit from finding people they trust, who care about what they’re going through. Their support network can include family, peers, guidance counselors, and mentors.

Unplugging: Unfortunately, teens who self-harm sometimes find websites that support or glamorize this behavior. Therefore, they are drawn back into the habit. Thus, unplugging as much as possible is important for teens who self-injure. Moreover, reducing digital media activity will support mental health overall.

Exercise: Research shows that exercise supports mental health by increasing the body’s production of endorphins. These are the brain’s “feel good” chemicals. Moreover, doing a physical activity can increase a teen’s feelings of mastery and self-confidence. As a result, they feel less of an urge to self-harm.

Take Control: For some people, getting the facts and making plans can help counteract stress and negative emotions. If teens have a big project looming, they can create a schedule that will keep them on track. If they’re facing an unknown situation, they can do some research so they know what to expect. Therefore, teens are able to reduce feelings of being out of control. Thus, self-harming behavior also goes down.

Creativity: Writing, art, music, and dance can all serve as ways to express emotions. For example, writing about what’s creating stress and anxiety in your life helps you to identify outside stressors. Moreover, it can help you pinpoint what’s going on internally.

Read “The Power of Writing and Journaling for Mental Health.”

What to Do in an Emergency

In conclusion, while self-injury is not the same as a suicide attempt, it can be life-threatening. Therefore, take these emergency actions if someone is actively self-harming:

  1. Do not leave the person alone.
  2. Remove anything that could be used in a suicide attempt, including firearms, alcohol, drugs, razors, or other sharp objects.
  3. Call the US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
  4. Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.

 Images courtesy of unsplash

Sources

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Clin Psych Sci. 2017 Nov;6(1):3–17

J Health Soc Behav. 2010; 51(Suppl): S54–S66.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention