Self harm is a complex issue and often misunderstood.
On average, 15 to 17 percent of Canadian youth will self injure due to mental anguish. The most common being; cutting. Other methods include: burning, hair-pulling, purging, head banging, hitting oneself and ingesting harmful substances.
Adults respond in many different ways which include; empathy, sadness, shock, anxiety and even disgust or judgment. Most of these reactions are detrimental and it is important to understand why, so that you can understand why empathy is the only beneficial reaction.
Typically these youth feel very intense emotions and have difficulty regulating these emotions. Therefore, when they feel intense anger, sadness, or anxiety the young adult will engage in self-harm as a way to relieve their distress.
Other times, they will engage in this behaviour in order to combat a sense of numbness, to gain a sense of control, to express anger, to punish themselves, or the elicit attention from others. This is done because they feel better afterwards, even if only for a short time. Therefore, it is a coping strategy.
A misconception is that self-injury is a form of suicide. Those who self-harm are at an increased risk of suicidality because of the intense distress they are feeling. It is important to remember that the majority of those who self-injure are attempting to cope with their pain, and are explicitly not intending to end their life.
The most important thing to remember when you come across this behaviour is to speak to the young adult about their wounds in a calm, respectful way. Listen to them without shock or judgment. Encourage them to use their voice rather than their bodies as self-expression. Approach this conversation with an open mind, and aim to understand both their distress, and how self injury helps them cope. While ensuring their safety and minimizing harm, help them find other coping strategies that will help reduce their distress.