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Understanding Self-Harm


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Understanding Self-Harm

Self-injury is a serious issue among teens and a possible sign of underlying mental illness. Let’s take a look at this dangerous behavior and its causes.

Self-Harm Statistics


Percentage of those who engage in self-harm who are pre-adolescents or teens, usually beginning at age 14. (1)

Up to 38%

Estimated percentage of young adults and adolescents who engage in self-harm (2)


Percentage of group who demonstrate a lifetime prevalence of abuse (2)


Estimated percentage of college students who admit to self-harm after the age of 17 (2)

Common Types of Self-Harm

Though the most talked-about type is cutting of the skin, there are multiple ways one might engage in self-harm, including: (2)

Sticking objects into skin

Banging head against hard surfaces

Burning oneself

Pulling out hair, also known as trichotillomania

Hitting oneself with hard objects

Incessant picking at skin or scabs

Intentional interference with healing wounds

Ingesting poison or harmful objects

Intentionally breaking bones in hands and feet

Self-Harm and Mental Health

Self-harm is often a sign of a specific mental disorder, and these disorders often occur alongside each other. The most common co-occurring disorders include: (2)

Major depressive disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

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Generalized anxiety disorder

Conduct and behavioral disorders

Eating disorders


Bipolar disorder

Autism spectrum disorder

1 in 10

Number of adolescents affected by serious emotional disturbances (3)


Percentage of high school students who admit to attempting suicide. 14.5% admit to considering it (3)

19.9 million

Number of people 12 and older who use illicit drugs, a common sign of mental illness or trauma in adolescents (3)

Causes of Self-Harm

Though mental disorders are the No. 1 cause of self-harm, there are more specific reasons adolescents and children engage in the behavior. These include: (2)

Coping strategy

Some adolescents may learn that engaging in self-harm helps them cope with stress or traumatic life events.

Emotional regulation

For some, self-harm takes focus off of intense emotions that are overwhelming. Sometimes this can be associated with sexual abuse.

Creating sensation

Sometimes traumatic experiences can leave someone feeling numb. This inability to feel emotion may lead one to try and feel something physically, leading to self-harm.

Control issues

Often, adolescents who engage in self-injurious behavior feel a lack of control of other parts of their lives. Some may live in environments where expressing emotion is looked down upon.


A child growing up and being told they are deficient or defective may feel shame and punish themselves through self-harm.