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Understanding Self-Harm

Understanding self-harm behavior can be complex. It can be hard to comprehend why people self-harm, and it can be incredibly upsetting if it’s your loved one.

Naturally, we want to understand why. Why do people hurt themselves?

While we understandably want these behaviors to stop, they’re not always straightforward. It takes time to learn the skills to utilize healthier coping mechanisms.

Thankfully, there is a lot you can do to support your friends, family, or even yourself—beginning with understanding self-harm and what drives a person to hurt themselves. The Suffolk DBT team has put together this information to guide you and is here to support you through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy on Long Island and Manhattan.

What is Self-Harm?

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), self-harm is any behavior that causes deliberate, self-inflicted harm that’s not meant to be suicidal. In this clinical setting, self-harm is often referred to as non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI).

Self-harm behavior includes:

Zoomed in image of a young person wearning a black hoodie and jeans and pulling his sleeves over his wrists in an apparent attempt to hide self-harm.

4 Keys to Understanding Self-Harm

Most individuals who self-harm are not suicidal. Some individuals will only self-harm once, while others do so for many years. However, a 2013 study from the Journal of Adolescent Health indicated that NSSI could be a predictor of later suicide attempts.

Self-harm behavior occurs most often in teens and young adults. A meta-analysis conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire found that at least 17 percent of adolescents had engaged in NSSI at least once.

While adults are less likely than teens to engage in self-harm behavior, it can still happen at all stages of life. Self-harm behaviors occur regardless of race or socioeconomic status.

Self-harm is used to cope with challenging thoughts and emotions, and those who have experienced trauma, neglect, or abuse are most often at risk.

Why Do People Hurt Themselves?

While all ages and backgrounds are impacted by self-harm, those with difficult circumstances or lived experiences may be at greater risk. Examples include:

In teen and adolescent populations, individuals report self-harm as a way to handle strong emotions and communicate emotional challenges. This is especially true for young adults who report being bullied. A study from the Journal of Child and Family Studies found that those teens who reported being bullied or victimized were more likely to injure themselves and experience intensified signs of depression.

When an individual is impacted in one or more of these areas, they may experience overwhelming and significant sadness or anxiety. Some individuals report feeling like they are at an impasse and need a way to cope with or release the pressures in their lives.

While many individuals have coped with challenging circumstances, not all will self-harm. Therefore, it can be difficult to understand the purpose of self-harm.

Some individuals have described the experience as a way of:

Talking to a trained mental health professional can help an individual identify triggers and find healthier coping options. Here at Suffolk DBT, our highly trained therapists are here to help navigate strong emotions, improve self-awareness, and equip you to make positive changes in your life. Therapy can also be incredibly beneficial to parents and guardians of teens that are self-injuring. Speaking with a trained DBT therapist can help bring family members clarity and develop an understanding of self-harm.

Myths About Self-Harm

There are many myths that keep us from effectively understanding self-harm. Inaccurate information runs rampant, fueling further misunderstanding and confusion.

Misinformation only furthers shame and encourages individuals not to seek additional help or talk about their feelings. Here are five myths about self-harm:

MYTH – Self-harm is attention-seeking

One of the most dangerous and common myths surrounding self-harm is that it is attention-seeking. Generally, this is not the case. Most individuals that engage in self-harm behavior do not tell anyone. If they cut or burn, they will often do so in discrete areas to hide their scars or wear clothing that covers their scars or injuries. If an individual engages in self-harm as a cry for help or as a way to gain attention, there is nothing inherently wrong about wanting to be acknowledged or supported. Everyone deserves an empathetic response.

MYTH – Cutting is the only form of self-harm

While cutting often comes to mind when someone thinks of self-harm, it is not the only form of non-suicidal self-injury. Disordered eating, binging, unhealthy amounts of exercise, binge drinking, and drug abuse are also considered self-harm behavior. Any behavior resulting in physical or emotional harm to cope could be regarded as self-harm.

MYTH – Only teens and adolescents self-harm

As you now know, this is not true. Adults of all ages engage in self-harm, as well as some younger children experiencing significant distress. While self-harm behavior occurs most often in teens and young adults, individuals at any age can be affected.

MYTH – Self-harm is a suicide attempt

Self-harm is referred to as non-suicidal self-injury for a reason. For those who have difficulty comprehending self-harm, it can often be mistaken as a suicide attempt. However, as you’ve learned, self-harm is often primarily to cope with challenging emotions and experiences. Self-harm is usually a temporary plan to alleviate pain rather than a permanent solution to end one’s life. However, self-harm should always be taken seriously, as some individuals who self-harm may also have suicidal thoughts.

MYTH – Self-harm isn’t treatable

Self-harm can be treated effectively. Working with a trained mental health professional can help an individual learn healthier ways to cope with difficult emotions. Therapy may also help to uncover underlying needs that have contributed to self-harm behavior. Specifically, dialectical behavior therapy is especially effective for self-harm. Our highly skilled therapists at Suffolk DBT can help you or your loved one. Reach out today!

Zoomed in image of a man and a woman holding one another's hands in a supportive and comforting gesture. Understanding self-harm with the support of a DBT therapist can help individuals, couples, teens, and their families!

Getting Help

Professional mental health support is critical in reducing or eliminating the occurrence of self-harm behavior. While it can be challenging to ask for help, it can significantly impact your life or the life of your loved one.

According to the National Alliance for Mental Health (NAMI), self-harm may be necessary for individuals to manage their emotions. Therefore, it’s important that the individual self-harming learns new, healthier coping mechanisms.

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a form of cognitive behavioral therapy, was developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan to manage the overwhelming thought patterns of individuals struggling with self-harm, non-suicidal self-injury, and suicidal ideation.

Considerable research has been completed, and DBT has shown to be an incredibly promising and effective way to treat self-harm and suicidal ideation. DBT targets emotional dysregulation and helps individuals improve their emotional awareness and build tolerance for distressing emotions, thus improving their responses to strong emotions and developing healthier coping mechanisms.

A study from the journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health showed that DBT interventions were well-accepted by families and effective in improving patient outcomes across multiple areas, including suicidality, NSSI, emotion dysregulation, and depression.

Additionally, a meta-analysis published by Psychological Medicine came to similar conclusions and indicated that DBT is a valuable treatment in reducing adolescent self-harm (i.e., cutting) and teen suicidal ideation.

Specifically, DBT can help individuals:

DBT skills and treatment can help uncover underlying needs and teach healthier coping skills to work through life’s challenges. Our experienced NYC therapists at Suffolk DBT specialize in serving children, teens, young adults, and adults struggling with self-harm or suicidal ideations.

We proudly provide quality dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) in Manhattan, Suffolk County, Nassau County, and online.

Self-harm behaviors are significant and should be addressed quickly. Responding with care and concern can encourage your loved one to share their experiences and seek help. DBT is a great option for those looking for a comprehensive way to address their emotional needs. It provides practical tools that offer hope for you or your loved one.

If you are searching for a therapist in or around the 10019 zip code, Suffolk DBT proudly provides quality dialectical behavior therapy, a form of cognitive behavioral therapy, at their offices in Manhattan and Long Island, New York and online. Their experienced NYC and Nassau County therapists for teens and young adults specialize in helping those struggling with depression, borderline personality disorder, eating disorders, and self-harm. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skills and treatment can help you or your kids to manage emotions and work through life’s challenges.

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