Self-harm is thought of as a concern that affects teens. But like any other mental health concern, self-harm does not discriminate and can manifest in anyone struggling with mental health regardless of age.
What is self-harm?
Self-harm is when an individual intentionally causes harm to their physical body. This can take various forms, including cutting, biting, burning or hitting.
“To help them cope. Some people self-harm because it feels good to them, to prove they can tolerate pain or to relieve negative feelings.”
“To direct emotion inward. Some people self-harm to punish or take out their anger on themselves.”
“To communicate with others that they’re in distress or need support.”
Self-harm is seen more often affecting women than men, but anyone can suffer from self-harm. Most of the time, those who self-harm do not intend suicide, but self-harm can be a gateway for suicidal thoughts. Therefore, it is crucial for anyone battling self-harm to receive help to prevent a worsening of the condition.
The causes of self-harm in adults
Someone could be drawn to self-harm as a coping mechanism for an unaddressed mental health concern. Struggling with an undiagnosed mental health disorder, like PTSD or OCD, for example, can be an emotionally challenging experience that may cause the development of self-harm as a means of channeling these uncontrolled thoughts and feelings.
Specific root causes of self-harm may also include:
Struggling with mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder
Not having proper coping mechanisms to deal with stressors
Having a history of abuse, including physical, sexual or emotional abuse
Being the victim of bullying
Facing struggles with gender identity and sexual orientation
Experiencing social isolation
History of mental health concerns in one’s family
While not everyone who struggles with the above will develop self-harm behaviors, it is vital to be aware of the risk factors in case signs begin manifesting.
Signs of self-harm in adults
Depending on the methods of self-harm, signs may manifest in different ways. For adults struggling with self-harm, knowing the signs is crucial to get them the help they may need.
Withdrawing from friends and family members or activities previously enjoyed
Wearing long sleeves during warmer months to hide injuries
Having physical injuries on the body, including burns, cuts, bruises, broken bones and scrapes
Brushing off these injuries as accidents
Struggling with focus and concentration
Experiencing intrusive thoughts about self-harm
Expressing feelings of worthlessness, helplessness or hopelessness
Showing poor impulse control
This is not a comprehensive list of potential symptoms, and others may arise depending on the root cause of the self-harm. However, educating yourself on possible symptoms will better equip you to take action should the need arise.
Helping adults struggling with self-harm
Self-harm most often occurs due to a stressor or mental health condition that is not being properly handled. To cope with the intense emotions, one may be feeling, the actions of self-harming may be pursued.
Of course, no physical harm done to the body is ever productive in healing mental health problems; they only end up causing additional damage to the individual. You can help a loved one in your life who is battling self-harm through several actions.
Take care not to panic
Becoming overly emotional about the reality of self-harm will only add to the complicated emotions your loved one is feeling. It may also discourage them from opening up to you in the future. Remain calm, peaceful and matter-of-fact while your loved one shares their story with you. Your stability will offer them needed support.
Help them come up with a plan
If you focus on just the self-harm, you’ll likely be missing the root of the problem. Ask your loved one what they think may be causing the self-harm, and see if the two of you can devise a plan to help minimize the behavior. This may include calling when temptations arise, seeking therapy or redirecting self-harming thoughts into another productive activity.
Remind them of alternatives
If one is in a habit of self-harm, it can feel like there are no other solutions to handling strong emotions. Ensure them that while specific self-harming patterns may be familiar, this familiarity does not mean they’re helping. Please encourage them to seek out healthy responses to stress to promote overall well-being.
Allow them to be in control
What won’t help your loved one is trying to control their actions. As much as you may want to, taking control of the situation won’t help them in the long run, and the change in behavior needs to come from within themselves. Give your loved one the space to make their own choices while encouraging them towards health and recovery.
Offer treatment/counseling options
If your loved one is open to it, present the idea of therapy to help overcome self-harming habits. The benefit of seeking therapy is that the therapist can help with the underlying mental health condition and the self-harming behaviors to promote overall healing.