Understanding Self-Harm

Self-Harm Awareness Month in March encourages us to learn about the causes and treatment options for self-harm so we can help one another understand the complexities, get connected to support, and find lasting recovery.

What is self-harm?

Self-harm is common and affects more people than you might think. Self-harm/non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) refers to situations in which a person engages in self-injury not intended to result in death. Self-harm may look like cutting, burning, skin tearing or picking, hair pulling, or self-bruising or self-hitting, scratching, or pinching that causes bleeding or leaves marks.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), self-harm is not an actual mental health disorder. More accurately, self-harm is a behavior that indicates emotional distress and the need for healthier coping skills.

Why do people engage in self-harm?

The urge to self-harm can affect anyone experiencing emotional distress. Those at highest risk are people who have experienced trauma, neglect, or abuse.

There are many reasons for engaging in self-harm. Some who self-harm say that it gives them a feeling of control and release from tension. Self-harm has also been described as a coping strategy for relieving pressure that has built up from overwhelming, distressing, or painful thoughts or feelings.

Mental health disorders can co-occur with self-harm, including borderline personality disorder, depression, eating disorders, anxiety, or post-traumatic distress disorder.

Self-harm is NOT a cry for attention. In fact, the cycle of self-harm creates feelings of shame, which may cause people to conceal injuries and keep the self-harm behaviors a secret, due to feelings of guilt or fear of judgment.

Can people recover from self-harming conditions and behaviors?

If you or someone you know is engaging in self-harm behaviors, there are many support services and treatments available when a person feels ready to seek help.

Talk therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) focus on building coping strategies, alternative coping mechanisms, and problem-solving skills can be very effective in helping to reduce self-harm.

Other forms of counseling can help people identify the problems that are causing distress and leading to self-harm.

At North Range, you will find caring and compassionate professionals who will listen and help work on solutions and strategies to cope with the challenges that are leading to self-harm coping mechanisms.

How can I help?

Feeling misunderstood is one of the reasons people hide self-harm. Concealing the problem makes it worse and keeps people from connecting with the support they need to heal. While a person who self-harms usually does not have suicidal ideation, there can be a higher risk of attempting suicide if they do not get help.

  • Learn about self-harm (non-suicidal self-injury).
    • It can be difficult to understand why someone would hurt themselves. Learning the causes, signs and symptoms, facts vs. myths, and treatment options for self-harm can help you understand the complexities of the situation which enable you to be helpful to someone in need.
    • Get trained in Mental Health First Aid. Mental Health First Aid is a course that teaches us to notice early signs and symptoms of mental health challenges, so we can help people get connected to support.
Open heart icon for no judgement
  • Open your heart to the situation without judgement.
    • The first step in getting help is to tell someone, however the taboo and stigma around self-harm is so strong, that taking the first step is often the hardest.
    • People engaging in self-harm often live in a perpetual cycle of guilt, shame, critical self-talk, and isolation. As a result, lectures, shaming or blame do not help the person who is hurting. In fact, it may intensify the distressing feelings and perpetuate the cycle.
  • Create an environment that helps a person feel less isolated.
    • If you’re worried a family member or friend might be engaging in self-harming behaviors, consider asking them how they're doing and be prepared to listen to the answer, even if it makes you uncomfortable. This can be hard when we see someone in distress, because we want to fix things quickly - but listening non-judgmentally is very important.
    • Focus on the thoughts and feelings behind their self-harm rather than the specific behaviors. Do not ask for details about how the person has harmed themselves.
  • Look for opportunities to share hope and encourage appropriate professional help.
    • It will not be helpful to pressure someone to talk about things they feel uncomfortable talking about in the moment. Instead, focus on messages of hope and encouragement, so the person can engage in the conversation to their level of comfort.
    • Share the fact that self-harm is more common than we might think, and with the right help and support most people who self-harm can and do fully recover.
    • Focus on helping the person feel safe, so they can be open to the idea of talking more as their comfort level increases.
    • Offer to help them find a trusted health professional who can work with them to decide the best treatment options.

The stigma of self-harm needs to be broken. Help spread the word about Self-Harm Awareness Month this March by sharing this information with those you know and care for so we can all understand there’s no shame in seeking help.

North Range is a provider of Colorado Crisis Services and offers crisis support all day, every day at no cost to you.
Call 844.493.TALK (8255), text TALK to 38255, or walk into 928 12th Street in Greeley to talk to a counselor who won’t judge and can help connect you to resources.






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