Brain Science and Updates From the Field

March marks self-harm awareness month

Thursday, March 16, 2017

For millions of Americans, inflicting pain upon themselves seems like the only way to alleviate tension and gain some semblance of control over their lives.

Unfortunately, many of these people who engage in self-harm are often left unnoticed, misunderstood or neglected. The silence surrounding such self-harm makes increasing our understanding all the more vital to addressing the problem.

It’s what makes March’s designation of Self-Harm Awareness Month all the more important.

What is self-harm?

Each year, two million cases of self-harm are reported among Americans, who often carry out the act by cutting and burning their skin and pulling out hair. But despite its destructive nature, self-harm is not necessarily suicidal behavior. On the contrary, the act of hurting oneself serves as a way to feel in control when they otherwise feel as though they possess no control in their lives. Although many people carry out the act at instant relief, self-harm is fueled by emotional distress that could lead to suicide attempts in the future. At a time of great emotional pain, the physical pain brought on by self-harm is often easier to deal with and might feel less acute by comparison.

Self-harm occurs nearly evenly among males and females. According to the Healthy Place, one-in-five females and one-in-seven males engage in the behavior. The practice often starts during adolescence, when a reported 90 percent of self-harm occurs, but can start and continue to occur later in life as well. Many young people feel encouraged to use self-harm as a coping method and learn techniques to do so from websites and peers.

Indeed, media portrayal of self-harm has had an effect on perceptions of the behavior. Not only has it influenced younger people to engage in it, but it has also led to generalizations that the act is commonplace among some social cultures and the assumption that those who self-injure are simply seeking attention.

While self-harm itself is not a mental illness, it is often an indication of underlying depression and personality disorders. Some signs can help shine a light on whether or not a loved one is engaging in self-harming behaviors. If you have noticed them often wearing bandages and bruises or if they insist on wearing long sleeves and pants even in hot weather, perhaps they are trying to hide scars and injuries. In addition, be aware of potential self-endangering behaviors and any sharp objects they might be concealing at unusual times.

But most of all, be sure to ask questions and listen. It is important to refrain from judgement and to remember that there is an underlying issue behind the self-harm that is causing the behavior.

Seek help by calling the national self-injury hotline, 1-800-DONTCUT, or contacting Stairways Behavioral Health at 814-453-5806.


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