Learn about self-harm and how to find help for children and youth in Ontario.
When a person injures their own body on purpose, it’s known as self-harm or self-injury. These self-inflicted injuries can be minor or more serious, but they are generally not life threatening. Self-harm or self-injury is sometimes called “non-suicidal self-injury” (NSSI) because it’s not an attempt to commit suicide. In general, it develops as a way of coping with difficult situations or painful thoughts and feelings. Some experts view eating disorders and substance abuse as particular forms of self-harm.
Some facts about self-harming activities:
- They usually start in the adolescent or teen years and can carry on into adulthood.
- It’s not uncommon for young persons to purposely harm themselves at least once.
- In early adolescence, girls are more likely than boys to harm themselves, but later on, males and females are at similar risk for self-harm.
- Self-harm is often done in secret, so friends and family may not know it’s happening.
Common ways in which young people harm themselves include:
- cutting, scratching, biting or burning the skin
- hair pulling
- overdosing or poisoning, but not to lethal levels
- hitting the head or body against hard surfaces.
Anyone can self-harm and for some it’s a one-time-only event. But for others, it continues over time and grows into a habit that’s hard to change. While self-harm is an attempt to cope and is not usually a suicide attempt, those who injure themselves are at higher risk for suicide. So, any self-harming activity is a warning sign that something is wrong. Don’t ignore it.
Risk factors for self-harm
Any number of different factors in life can create distress that will lead some people to harm themselves.
Some factors are social or situational, for example:
- difficult relationships with family or friends
- problems at school or work, including bullying
- problems at home or family breakup
- dealing with homophobia or racism.
Some risk factors are more emotional and personal:
- feeling empty, disconnected, isolated
- experiencing anxiety, anger or depression
- a history of trauma or abuse
- a family history of self-harm.
Why people harm themselves
When stressful situations and feelings become too much, some will turn to self-harm as a way of releasing the emotional pressure. As a stress reliever, self-harm can bring relief in several different ways. For example:
- Hurting the body “outside” can shift the attention from painful emotions “inside.”
- Feeling emotionally numb or disconnected from inner feelings can push a person to want to feel “something,” even physical pain.
- If a person is feeling unworthy or guilty (with or without a reason), self-harm can sometimes be a form of self-punishment.
- It can provide a sense of control.
- It can be a way of letting others know that something is wrong.
The reasons behind self-harm can be complicated. Self-harm is a very individual experience and it’s not always easy to know why any one person does it. Also, a person’s reasons change over time.
Whatever the motivation for self-harm, the relief it delivers is short-lived. Worries and pressures build up again and so does the search for relief, leading to a vicious cycle of stress/self-harm/brief relief. The experience of this cycle can itself become another source of stress.
Signs of self-injury
Many who self-harm work hard to keep it a secret from others, so it can be difficult to detect. Some of the signs are:
- changes in usual behaviour, like withdrawing from friends and social life and more signs of stress or depression
- overdressing, for example, wearing long sleeves and pants in hot weather
- cuts, bruises or burns that can’t be explained and may happen more than once
- signs of scarring
- noticing razors or other items that could be used to self-harm.
If you know someone who is injuring themselves, there is help available (see below).
Treatment and support
Although some people can stop self-harming on their own, professional help is often needed. The main type of treatment for self-harm is counselling or “talk therapy” — usually cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT ) or dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT).
Counselling may be done one-on-one, in a small group, or with family involvement. Mental health professionals who offer such therapy include psychologists, social workers and doctors.
By going online, you may also find self-help groups in your area or “virtual” groups online.
How you can help
If you believe a friend or loved one is self-harming:
- Be supportive. Let them know you care.
- Don’t judge. Listen. Let them know you are there to help.
- Carry on and do the things you usually like to do with each other.
- Learn what you can about self-harming and share helpful information with your friend or loved one if they show interest.
- Offer to be with them if and when they’re ready to speak to a trusted adult, such as a counsellor or family doctor.
- Help them get medical help for injuries that are serious.
- Take care of yourself. What you see and what you learn may be upsetting. You might need some help and support yourself and, if you are a young person, you too may want to talk to a trusted adult.
Find services close to home by searching the Ontario Health Care Options directory.
Children and youth can contact:
Kids Help Phone
Free, anonymous and confidential professional phone counselling and online counselling, available 24/7 for kids and youth 20 years of age and younger.
Kids Help Phone
Youth friendly information, links and tips on what to do to help yourself or a friend.
Self-Injury Outreach and Support
Information and resources about self-injury for “those who self-injure, those who have recovered, and those who want to help.” The site includes coping tips, resources, links and videos for those who self-injure, and for friends, family and professionals. SIOS is a collaboration between University of Guelph and McGill University.
For more information for parents, go to:
For more information on what you can do as a friend, go to:
Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO)
What You Need to Know about Self-Harm
Includes practical advice for parents as well as treatment contacts in eastern Ontario.
Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery (US)
A comprehensive site on the subject of self-injury with extensive resources and links for young people, parents, friends, and clinical and social service professionals.
A youth-friendly site hosted by Youthscape, a UK charity helping young people 11 to 19 years of age. The site focuses on informing and supporting young people who self-harm, providing a safe, online space for interactions, as well as information and support for friends and family. Young people can share stories and ask questions.