warning signs of self-harm
What are the warning signs of self-harm? Learn about what to look for

Self-harm is the act of purposely harming your body as a way to cope with stress, emotional pain, or anger. Extreme mood swings can also trigger an urge to self-injure. This behavior is especially common in tweens and teenagers.

Some may self-injure only a few times and then stop, whereas for others it can become a long-term, repetitive, and dangerous behavior.

What illnesses are associated with self-harm?

Hurting oneself or thoughts about hurting oneself are signs of emotional distress and (less often) shame or guilt. This distress may get more intense if a person continues to use self-harm as a coping mechanism. 

Illnesses often associated with self-harm are:

What are signs and symptoms of self-harm?

It is important to be able to recognize the signs of self-harm in friends and family, provide support, and ensure they receive appropriate help. Even though someone may not intend to commit suicide, some injuries may be unintentionally severe or even life-threatening. Getting appropriate treatment is crucial.

Signs and symptoms of self-injury may include:

  • Scars, typically seen in patterns over the wrist, arms, legs, thighs, waist, etc.
  • Fresh cuts and bruises
  • Burn marks
  • Keeping sharp objects on hand
  • Wearing long sleeves or long pants, even in hot weather
  • Frequent reports of accidental injury
  • Difficulty maintaining relationships
  • Difficulty focusing at work or school
  • Socially withdrawn
  • Behavioral problems
  • Emotional instability
  • Impulsivity and unpredictability
  • Depressed mood
  • Lack of interest in things they used to be interested in
  • Feeling of helplessness, hopelessness, or worthlessness

What are forms of self-harm?

Self-injury is usually done in private; therefore, it often goes unnoticed by friends and family members. People who harm themselves usually do it in a controlled or ritualistic manner that leaves a pattern on the skin, and most often target arms, legs, and the waist.

Common forms of self-harm include:

  • Cutting
  • Deep scratching
  • Burning (with lit matches, cigarettes or heated, sharp objects, such as knives)
  • Carving words or symbols on the skin
  • Self-hitting
  • Headbanging
  • Piercing the skin with sharp objects
  • Inserting sharp objects under the skin

What to do when you see someone with signs of self-harm

If you see signs of self-harm in a friend or family member, it’s important to take action as soon as possible. While mental health is a sensitive topic, it’s vital you address the issue so that the person can get medical help as well as emotional support.

Children and teenagers

Children who self-injure are at higher risk of hurting themselves inadvertently to the extent that the injury becomes serious or fatal.

Parents who notice signs of self-harm in their child should seek the help of their teacher, school counselor, pediatrician, or a mental health-care provider who specializes in children. While shock and fear may be a natural reaction to seeing a child hurt themselves, parents should avoid yelling or punishing the child. Instead, it’s best to stay calm, comforting them and instilling in them a sense of trust.

Teachers who recognize the signs of self-harm in a child can also offer support. They should inform both the parents and school counselor if possible. If the child is from an abusive household, teachers may speak to the school principal and counselor to take further necessary steps. 

Adults

With adults, it’s important to approach the topic gently and be respectful when expressing concerns about suspected self-harm. It may be difficult to convince adults to seek professional help, but they should be encouraged to do so for their physical and mental health.

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Medically Reviewed on 6/29/2021
References
National Alliance on Mental Illness. Self-Harm. https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Common-with-Mental-Illness/Self-harm

Self-Harm and Self-Injury. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/ConditionsAndTreatments/self-harm

Medline Plus. Self-Harm. https://medlineplus.gov/selfharm.html

Child Mind Institute. Help for Cutting and Other Self-Injury. https://childmind.org/article/what-drives-self-injury-and-how-to-treat-it/