Stop Self Harm in Adolescents

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Trigger Warning: The details of this article of Stop Self Harm in Adolescents may be distressing to some.

Self-harm can be alarming and can have a negative effect on those who engage in the practice, as well as on their friends and family. Learning about the reasons behind self-inflicted injury can help us learn to recognize and stop self harm. One of the first things to do if you think your child is self-harming is to have a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation to learn the extent of the problem and create a guide for treating the problem. Then, you should find a medical practice that has the expertise to help adolescents, like J. Flowers Health Institute.

What is Self-Harm and How Common is It?

Before learning how to stop self harm, it is important to understand what self harm is. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), self-harm is defined as injuries that people intentionally inflict upon themselves without the intent of ending their own lives.1 Self-harm can take various forms, with the following being common forms of self-harm:

Cutting

Scratching

Mutilation

Self-injury, such as purposely burning oneself or punching oneself

Compulsive picking at wounds/scabs

A Meta-Analysis of Studies to Stop Self Harm

A review of 172 different studies conducted across the globe found that 16.9% of adolescents have self-harmed during their lifetimes. The review, which was published in a 2018 edition of the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, found that girls were 1.72 times more likely than boys were to engage in self harm. In addition, the review found that the average person who self-harms begins at the age of 13, and 47% of people only self-harm once or twice. Cutting is the most common form of self-harm, with 45% of people reporting this method.2

Teen Cutting Problem

Teen cutting may be especially common, particularly among girls. A 2018 study in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology found that the highest rates of self-harm were among girls aged 15 to 19. In this demographic, the rate of self-harm was 564 per 100,000 people. There is also a high rate of self-harm among young men aged 20 to 24, where the rate is 448 per 100,000 people.3

Consequences of Self-Harm

While the APA defines self-harm as an injury that is not intended to result in suicide, there can be serious, but unintended consequences. For instance, self-harm can result in scarring from repeated cutting. In some cases, self-mutilation can also lead to death. For instance, the teen cutting may not be intentionally suicidal, but a teen may accidentally severely cut themselves, leading to life-threatening bleeding.

In addition, untreated self-harm can increase the risk of suicide. According to the study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, teens who self-harm are 4.97 times more likely to think about suicide and 9.14 times more likely to attempt it.2 This means that while self-harming may not initially be intended to result in death, over time, those who engage in this practice may develop suicidal intent.

Teen cutting may be especially risky for girls, who are four times more likely to have a future suicide attempt following hospitalization for cutting, according to the results of a study in a 2018 edition of The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.4

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How to Stop Self Harm

Given the fact that self harm methods like teen cutting are dangerous and can be fatal, it is important to make an effort to stop self harm. To begin to understand how to stop self harm, it is also important to learn why kids cut themselves. According to the study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, the most common reason for teen cutting is to alleviate upsetting thoughts or feelings.2 This means that teens may cut to cope with their emotions.

According to the APA, research also shows that teens may be at increased risk of self harm if they have eating disorders or body image issues, suffer from low self-esteem, or have been victims of bullying. Forms of self-harm may be coping mechanisms for these challenges as well.1

To address the reasons why kids cut themselves or engage in other forms of self harm, counseling interventions can be helpful. A 2015 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry found that the following three types of therapy were able to stop self harm:5

Cognitive-behavioral therapy 

Dialectical behavioral therapy

Mentalization-based therapy 

Counseling

In counseling, teens who engage in self-harm can learn ways to cope with stress and manage their emotions. For example, with cognitive behavioral therapy, teens can learn to replace negative ways of thinking with more positive thinking patterns. Dialectical behavioral therapy can teach ways to regulating emotions in a healthier way, so you don’t have to turn to cutting to find relief from distress, sadness, or low self-esteem from bullying or other mental health issues.

Contact the Hotline

In addition to these methods to stop self harm, it may be useful to contact a self harm hotline. For instance, those who are engaging in teen cutting can text HOME to the number 741741 to communicate with a crisis counselor. This can stop self harm during a crisis or strong emotions.

Developing a Plan

It is also helpful to have a plan in place to stop self harm. This should include a safety plan, which details steps to take if there are feelings to engage in one of the forms of self harm. This may involve calling a trusted friend or family member, contacting a self harm hotline, or engaging in an alternative activity. The safety plan may list alternatives to self harm, which are activities you can do instead of self harm. These activities could include:

Journaling

Listening to music

Going for a walk

Watching an episode of a favorite TV show

Reading

Drawing

Exercising

Taking a hot bath

The goal of alternatives to self harm is to stop self harm by replacing it with healthier behaviors. Over time, these alternative behaviors can become habit, so there is no desire to engage in self-mutilation to find relief from unsettling feelings. These alternatives to self harm are an important part of a self harm safety plan.

Self-Harm Relapse

While treatment can be helpful for self-harm, people may relapse and return to cutting or other forms of self-harm, especially if they are experiencing significant stress. If a friend or loved one experiences a self-harm relapse, it is important to listen to any concerns shared. Avoid lecturing or being judgmental, and try to remain warm and empathetic. Listening is more important than providing solutions early on in this stage. Express genuine care and concern for your loved one and, once ready, encourage them to seek support from a counselor or to turn to a self-harm safety plan and alternatives to self-harm. You might help your loved one by inviting them to engage in enjoyable activities with you.

Returning to Counseling to Stop Self Harm

If you have a history of self-harm and find that you are relapsing, it may be time to return to counseling to process the emotions that have led you to begin cutting or engaging in other forms of self-harm. It is also helpful to consult your self-harm safety plan or reach out to a self-harm hotline to help you cope with the immediate feelings of wanting to self-harm.

According to the authors of the Therapist's Guide to Evidence-Based Relapse Prevention, it can be helpful to ensure you are practicing self-care and engaging in positive activities.6 This means that it is important to take time to care for yourself through exercise, proper nutrition, and adequate sleep. It is also essential that you do things that you enjoy. If you have been having repeated self harm relapses, it may be necessary to complete a relapse prevention plan, which helps you identify triggers for self-mutilation and develop a plan for what you will do if those triggers present themselves.

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Learn to Stop Self Harm

Self-harm may be a form of finding relief from negative emotions, but even when it is not intended to cause death, self-mutilation can be fatal. In addition, if the issues leading to self harm are left untreated, there is an increased risk of attempted suicide in the future. Given this risk, self harm is not a safe way to cope with negative emotions or to deal with challenges like eating disorders, low self-esteem, or bullying.

If you or a loved one is struggling with self harm, reach out for help today to receive treatment from a mental health professional. If self-harm leads to suicidal feelings at any time, it is important that you call 911 or seek treatment at an emergency department immediately to ensure your safety and well-being.