Self-injury, also known as cutting, self-harm, or self-mutilation, occurs when someone intentionally and repeatedly harms herself/himself in a way that is impulsive and not intended to be lethal. It can be frightening for a parent to discover that their son or daughter is engaging in this behavior.
Self-harm is rarely a problem that occurs in isolation. It is often a way to manage conflict or distress and a tool to manage emotions that feel unmanageable to an individual. The person may have a difficult time regulating, expressing or understanding their emotions. Adolescents often say they feel empty inside, lonely and unable to express strong emotion.
Self-harm is often hard to detect because it is secretive. Researchers at Cornell University suggest that several signs may indicate self-harm behavior. These include unexplained burns or a cluster of scars or cuts, difficulty handling feelings, relationship problems or avoidance of relationships and poor functioning at work and or school.
Common areas for self-harm are the wrists, fists, and forearms, however any area of the body is possible. Those engaging in such behavior may wear clothing that is inappropriate for the season as they try and conceal the scarring. Also, using heavy wrist bands, bandages or other coverings is common as one tries to conceal their wounds.
Persons who engage in self-harm are more likely to be highly self-critical and poor problem solvers. Age is one of the biggest risk factors for self-injury, with teens and young adults being at a greater risk. According to Mental Health America, research indicates that self-injury occurs in approximately 4% of adults in the United States and 15% of teens with an even higher risk existing for college age students. Other risk factors include; friends who self-harm, being neglected or abused (sexually, physically or emotionally) and persons who question their personal identity or sexuality.
There is no sure way to prevent a loved one from self-injury. Reducing the risk involves individuals and communities including parents, schools, medical professionals, co-workers and coaches working together and communicating openly about what they are seeing.
If someone you know is engaging in self-injury consult a mental health professional that has expertise in this area to obtain an evaluation or assessment, followed by a recommended course of treatment to prevent the cycle from continuing.