TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion of self-harm and methods of hurting oneself.

Self-Harm Awareness day is recognized on March 1st. This day of recognition aims to foster discussion about self-harm, how to cope with it, and offer supports for those struggling. Although we have a day dedicated to awareness, it’s really important to understand what self-harm is in order to foster coping and support.

Self-harm can be a difficult thing to address, whether you are the one struggling with it or someone you love is struggling with it. There are many facets to self-harm, and many reasons why people engage in it.

On its own, self-harm is not a mental illness, but can be associated with mental illnesses such as depression, borderline personality disorder, eating disorders, anxiety, or posttraumatic stress disorder. National Alliance on Mental Illness describes self-harm as hurting yourself intentionally. Often, when we think of self-harm, the most frequent thought is that it means cutting yourself with a sharp object. While cutting is a self-harm behavior, some people self-harm in the form of burning themselves, scratching to cause injury, intentionally giving oneself bruises, continually picking at wounds so they won’t heal, or even injuring oneself to the point of breaking bones.

Those who engage in self-harm behaviors are often in deep emotional and mental anguish. Heightened feelings of distress, anger, frustration, or pain turned inward can lead to engagement in self-harm. When coping skills to deal with difficult emotions are not present, people often turn to self-harm in an effort to control the pain that they are feeling. Self-harm can be considered a release, as endorphins (hormones that kill pain) are released when the injury occurs, which can actually improve one’s mood. On the other hand, if someone is experiencing numbness, harming oneself physically can cause an emotional reaction.

After self-harming, it’s common to feel guilt or shame about hurting oneself. Sometimes, this can lead to continuation of self-harm because of the intense negative feelings. It can turn an unhealthy coping mechanism into a pattern that is difficult to break, because of the emotional control it appears to give.

It’s important to understand that while not everyone who self-harms is suicidal, there is a deep emotional pain present that needs to be taken seriously.

There are many ways to replace this unhealthy coping mechanism with techniques that address the behavior and address difficult emotions in a healthy way. If you are struggling with self-harm, here are some steps to take to get the help you deserve:

  • Talk to someone you trust about it. Whether it’s a family member, medical professional, mental health professional, or another loved one, it’s important to speak up about it someone who you know will not judge you.
  • If you do not yet feel comfortable talk to someone you know, contact one of the following mental health resources for support and guidance:
  • Crisis Text Line: Text ‘HOME’ to 741741
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
    • *Can be used for significant emotional distress*
  • National Suicide Prevention Online Chat:
  • Contact a mental health provider to set up a therapy appointment

If you are currently engaging in self-harm, here are some alternatives to help combat urges to hurt yourself:

  • Hold an ice cube in your hand for as long as you can stand it
  • Draw lines with marker on the area you are wanting to hurt yourself
  • Draw butterflies on your skin instead of cutting to “keep them alive.” For more information on this, check out The Butterfly Project:
  • Put stickers on the area of your body that you are wanting to harm
  • Make a playlist of music that you enjoy
  • Keep a journal of your thoughts, feelings, and self-harm behaviors.

If you are not self-harming but have a loved one who is, here are some ways to offer support:

  • Understand that self-harm is not a cry for attention, but a reflection of deep emotional pain.
  • When talking with a loved one about their self-harm, listen to understand instead of responding. Though this may make you uncomfortable and hard to understand, listening without responding can help you get a better idea of what they are going through.
  • Do not pass judgment. We all cope with emotions in various ways, and we all deserve support through our struggles.
  • Encourage treatment, but do not press for it.
  • Let your loved one know that it is not uncommon to cope with self-harm, but they deserve to heal without hurting themselves in the process.

For more information about coping, check out the links below:

By, Kristi Zalinka, EAP Intern