Self harm

Self-harm, also called self-injury, is where someone deliberately injures themselves in a way that is not intended to end their life. Strong emotional reactions to self-harm are common, and some people may find it distressing to read the following information. It is important to seek help if you are feeling distressed.

There are many different ways a person might hurt themselves, such as:

In many cases, people self-harm as a way of coping with or expressing overwhelming emotions; however, while self-harm may provide short-term relief, it poses risk and danger to the individual’s safety, and people usually end up feeling worse. With the right treatment, it is possible to learn safer and healthier coping mechanisms, soothing techniques, and communication skills.

Prevalence of self harming behavior

Research suggests that 1 to 4% of adults and 15% of adolescents in the United States have self-harmed (1). The actual figure is probably higher than this, as many people do not report self-harm due to feelings of fear or shame. In one study, a third of students who had self-harmed reported that their injuries were of the severity that should have received medical attention, yet only 5% actually did seek treatment (2).

Research suggests that people of a sexual minority (2) or young people who are bullied (3) are more likely to self-injure.

Why do people self harm?

The reasons people give for hurting themselves vary, but it generally occurs when people are experiencing distress beyond that which they can cope with, and for which they do not have other healthier coping mechanisms.

People self-injure for reasons such as:

Types of problems contributing to this kind of distress include:

Unfortunately, it is often misunderstood that people who self-harm are “attention seeking”, but this is not the case. Health professionals know this and are trained to help.

What mental health symptoms are linked with self harm?

Self-harm is not a diagnosable mental health condition itself. It is a behavior associated with a number of diagnoses, including:

Research suggests that having a mental health condition increases the risk of self-harm, and that self-harm is associated with more severe symptoms.

Ways to heal from self harm

There are many resources available to help people to recover from self-harm. If you are relying on maladaptive coping strategies, know that professionals can help. You might consider one or more of these options:

Types of therapeutic approaches to consider

Common therapeutic approaches to treating self-harm include:

It’s important to consider different therapy types and how they resonate with you before choosing. If you’re unsure, your prospective therapist is a great person to seek advice from.

What should I look for in a therapist for self harm?

There are several factors to keep in mind when selecting a mental health professional, including:

Education and credentials: Look for a licensed mental health professional who has specialized training in self-harm and therapies that help people who self-harm, such as DBT and CBT. For example, some therapists will have certification from the DBT-Linehan Board of Certification. It can be helpful to take a look at therapists’ biographies, as this is where they often include their experience and specializations.

Personal fit: It’s important to find a therapist with whom you feel comfortable working with and trust. The trusting working relationship between you and your therapist, known as the “therapeutic alliance” can have a huge impact on the efficacy of therapy.

Talk in advance: The best way to judge how you might feel about your prospective therapist is to ask for a preliminary phone call (using Zencare, you can book a free initial phone consultation directly on the website with vetted therapists). Most therapists are happy to speak with clients before a first appointment, and many in fact require an initial call to ensure a good fit. This initial call allows you to ask about:

Find the best therapists near you

Find therapists who specialize in self-harm or DBT on Zencare. Search by insurance, fees, and location; watch therapist introductory videos; and book free initial calls to find the right therapist for you!

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