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Self-Harm: Information for youth

Click here to download a printable version of the information from this page.

My Story

I’m probably not all that different from you. I like spending time with friends. I have a pretty nice family, though we have the usual disagreements. School is a constant pressure, but that’s nothing new. I’m not the most popular, but at I have a few good friends. I spend most of my time being quiet and just being there. And I have a secret… I feel so numb at times that I hurt myself. I’m not proud of this, but when I’m alone I have a hard time resisting the urge. Every time I do it, I feel guilty and ashamed.

I don’t want everyone to know about this, because it would be another reason why people would dislike me. If my parents found out, they would probably freak out and tell me to stop seeking negative attention. My friends know I do it and promised to keep it as a secret. I know they’re worried. I wish I never started doing this, but I have a hard time stopping. I really don’t know what to do...

What is self-harm?

Self-harm (or "self-injurious behaviour") is when you hurt yourself on purpose. People often think it’s a kind of suicide attempt, but it’s not. Self-harm is actually how some people try to cope with unbearable feelings or feeling numb. If you’re self-harming, you’re actually trying hard to handle things. Although it’s often not about suicide, many may have these thoughts. Sometimes, self-harm cause death, even if people don’t intend to die.

Did you know… 1 out 5 youth aged 14-21 reports hurting themselves on purpose at one time or another?

How common are self-harm behaviours?

Many people believe that self-harm behaviour is a way to get attention. For most people who self harm, this isn’t true. Those who self-harm usually try to keep this a secret. And because it’s mostly a ‘secret’ activity, researchers have a hard time working out exactly how often it happens. A number of studies show that anywhere between 1-14% of youth self-harm. Most of these youth start between 13 to 15 years of age. Earlier research suggested girls harmed themselves a lot more often than guys. We’re now finding out that there isn’t as big a difference between guys and girls. Self harm behaviour usually peaks between the ages of 16 and 25.

Why do people self-harm?

People of all genders, cultures or backgrounds self-harm. Many youth who self harm say they do it as a way to cope with stress. Most of the time (but not always), self harm is linked to having anxiety, depression or borderline personalily traits.

Youth may self-harm to:

  • Get relief from painful or distressing feelings;
  • Deal with feelings of numbness;
  • Communicate pain or distress to others;
  • Gain a sense of control;
  • Punish themselves or express anger toward themselves;
  • Reduce anxiety.

Self-harm is not about getting extra attention, but is a sign that someone needs help. Having stresses and concerns are quite natural, but self harm is an unhealthy way to handle these challenges. Self-harm behaviours can be a bit like addictions, because the intensity and frequency can increase with time if not treated early.  

How do self-harm behaviours develop?

Unhealthy coping, like self-harm behaviours tend to appear when people experience a series of unpleasant experiences and lack healthier ways to manage their thoughts and feelings.

Researchers (lead by N. Slee, in 2008) have mapped out a model to help us understand how self-harm behaviours develop open the pdf to see the map

For example, for youth who are feeling overwhelmed, and not knowing how to handle these emotions, self-harm might help them turn the emotional pain into physical pain. While self-harm might give temporary relief, it can create a vicious and destructive cycle that can be difficult to stop.

What can I do to stop self-harming?

There are many ways to manage, reduce and eventually stop self-harming.  

  • Talk to a family member you trust. This might be your mom, dad, aunt, uncle or an older brother or sister. Maybe you’ve already told an adult who wasn’t helpful. Maybe you’re worried about telling an adult because you think he or she won’t understand. Here are some suggestions that might make it easier:
    • Bring up the topic: "Can we talk sometime? There’s something important I need to talk to you about."
    • Share how you’ve been feeling: "I’ve been feeling really overwhelmed lately. I’m feeling really stressed about __"
    • Ask for support: "I could really use your help with this."
    • Point out the kind support you need: "What I really need is someone to listen. It’s hard for me to open up if I’m feeling criticized, lectured or judged."
  • Talk to a teacher, guidance counsellor, family doctor or pediatrician. If needed, they can help by referring you to a counsellor or therapist experienced helping youth who self-harm. A counsellor can help you find ways to handle your stresses, and find alternatives to self-harm (if this is what you want).
  • Pin point the stresses and situations that ‘trigger’ self-harm behaviours. Knowing what leads up to self harm will give you a head start handling things differently. Work with your mental health professional, and ask yourself:
    • Am I feeling anxious, depressed, numb or angry?
    • When do I tend to harm myself?
    • What am I typically thinking of?
    • How does my thinking affect the way I feel?
    • What am I missing?
    • What would I like to see change?
    • What made me upset?
    • Did anything ‘trigger’ me?
    • Did I try anything else to cope with my stress?
    • What can I do differently next time?
  • Change unhealthy thoughts What you think really influences how you feel. We tend to remember the negative things in life and forget the nice things: like positive experiences, relationships or our accomplishments. This negative ‘mental filter’ fills up with negativity and blocks out the good things we hear, or do or experience. We also get in the habit of ‘mind reading’, where we assume that others are thinking bad things about us. We end up jumping to conclusions and responding to situations with almost automatic negative thoughts. You can change the way you think about things, but it takes practice.
    Start by becoming more aware of your negative (and unhelpful) thinking. Challenge your negative thinking by asking yourself:
    • How do I know if this is true? What proof do I have?
    • How do I know if this is false? What proof do I have?
    • How has thinking this way contributed to how I feel and act?

Then spend some time thinking of other possible explanations for a situation or someone’s reaction...

  • Maybe they are upset about something else?
  • Maybe this has nothing to do with me?
  • Maybe they just forgot?

Noticing the ‘good things’ in your life is important, and it also takes practice. Take some time every day to remember some positive things in your day. Each day, think about the things in your life that you’re grateful for. Practice gratitude for small things: a delicious muffin, the feeling of sun on your face, seeing a lovely bird, a kind smile, the feeling of your cat’s fur, a compliment, having a friend....).  

  • Learn to manage emotions. Emotions can range from being pleasant to unbearable. We need to be able to experience our emotions, but we also need to be able to manage them. It’s hard to make good decisions if emotions take over. We can learn to handle sadness, worry and anger, without letting these feelings control us. There are things you can do to make yourself feel a little better. When you are feeling sad, anxious, stressed or angry, try things that will distract or relax you:
    • Deep breathing
    • Meditation
    • Hanging our with friends (and not talking about the things stressing you)
    • Cleaning your room
    • Journal writing
    • Reading
    • Hobbies 
    • Arts and crafts
    • Exercise (walking outside, yoga, any physical activity you enjoy)
    • Playing or listening to music
    • Watching a funny movie
    • Taking a bath or sing in the shower

Remember-not all these strategies will work for everyone. Find the ones that work for you!

  • Improve problem solving skills. You really can develop skills to give you more control over situations and improve things. It’s always easier to handle things if you break them down into smaller bits first. You might find this a helpful way to work through a problem in a positive way. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Writing things down may also help you to organize your thoughts a little better. Please see our ‘Mental Health and Mental Illness’ fact sheet for youth for more detail on problem solving techniques.
    1. Define the problem. What’s bothering you? Does something need to change? This has to be something that is important to you. If it isn’t, you’re not likely to put any real energy into solving it. Be as clear as you can.
    2. Set a goal. What would you like things to be like? Having a goal in mind will really help you get there, but make sure your goal is realistic. You may not be able to get an A+ in math. But you could go from a failing grade to a ‘C’. Keep track of your progress. When you meet your goal, you can build on your success by setting other goals.
    3. Brainsorm options.  Think of all the possible ways to make things better. Be sure to think about:
      • Things you may need to change
      • Actions you can take
      • People who can support you or help to solve the problem
    1. Make a plan.  Write out what you’re going to do to meet your goal. It will help to be as realistic and specific as possible. Remember that change doesn’t happen overnight. Change usually happens in smaller steps, over time. Think about how you’ll handle mistakes and setbacks.
    2. This is where you try to focus on the stuff you will do, instead of the outcome. If you goal is to improve your grades, break things down into manageable actions like:
      • Go to class everyday
      • Spend ___ hours each night on homework
      • Limit screen time to ___ hours a day
    1. Get started and follow through. Keep track of the actions you’re taking. This can help you see the progress you’re making. Plan some little ‘rewards’ for yourself, for sticking to your plan. It’s OK to make mistakes-everyone slides a bit when trying to make a change. Learn from it, and move on.
    2. Reflect.  Think about what’s working and what’s not working. Be sure to pay attention to the things that may be getting better. Ask yourself:
      • Is your goal realistic?
      • What part of the plan am I having trouble with?
      • Do you need:
        • More time?
        • More support?
        • A different plan?
  • Communicate effectively. Learning to communicate more effectively can help you solve problems and have better relationships. Speaking up can also help you reach out when things hurt so much that you need to take it out on yourself. For things to get better, you’ll need to share your struggles with others, and ask for help. You can do this face to face, but you can also write a letter. Being a good communicator will help you get your needs met. When talking about anything that’s bothering you, try ‘DEAR’, below. It will help you share what’s on your mind and help you to solve problems.

Describe the current situation. Try to stick to the facts. For example, "This semester has been pretty rough."

Express- your feelings and opinions about the situation. For example, "I feel overloaded and overwhelmed by all of this school work."

Use "I messages". Using "I-messages" is the best way to get your points across, and can prevent the other person from reacting defensively. "I" messages are ways of expressing yourself, that begin with "I". They are a respectful way to get your point across, without threatening others.

  • "I think..."
  • "I’d like..."
  • "I feel..."
  • "I need..."
  • "I believe..."

Ask for what you want or need. Feel free to bring a friend or family member for support. For example, "I was hoping I could get some help to prepare for this next test."

Reinforce by telling the person how they can help you. Help them feel good ahead of time for supporting you. For example, "Could you go over this again with me? And maybe give me some sample problems to work on? I know how busy you are, and I really appreciate your help."   

Remember- it’s easier to communicate successfully with people who are willing to listen!

My story part 2...

Well, my worst fear happened. My friend told the guidance counsellor at school. I have to admit, I was pretty upset and felt betrayed at first. But now I look back at it and I see that my friend was actually being a good friend to me. I met with the school counsellor who told me I wasn’t alone and it wasn’t my fault. She helped me understand my stresses, my feelings and my thoughts. I learned some new things to help me me get through the rough times.

She also helped me talk with my parents. They were upset at first, but it wasn’t the end of the world. They really wanted to help, and it was a relief to have more people to talk to about things. They helped me practice the things I was learning. It wasn’t always easy, and I would still hurt myself sometimes. However, as things progressed, the time between each relapse became longer and longer until the day I realized that I had plenty of other tools to help me deal with the tough times. Things aren’t perfect but for the first time in a very long time I can say I feel happy and hopeful about the future.

Finding help in Ottawa

In a crisis? Child, Youth and Family Crisis Line for Eastern Ontario, 613-260-2360 or toll-free, 1-877-377-7775

Looking for mental health help? eMental Health is a bilingual directory of mental health services and resources for Ottawa, Eastern Ontario and Canada.

Finding help in Eastern Ontario

In a crisis? Child, Youth and Family Crisis Line for Eastern Ontario, 613-260-2360 or toll-free, 1-877-377-7775

Looking for mental health help? emental health is a bilingual directory of mental health services and resources for Ottawa, Eastern Ontario and Canada.

  • Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868
  • Renfrew County: Phoenix Centre for Children, Youth and Families, with offices in Renfrew and Pembroke. 613-735-2374 or toll-free 1-800-465-1870
  • Leeds and Grenville County: Children’s Mental Health of Leeds and Grenville, with offices in Brockville, Elgin, Gananoque and Prescott. 613-498-4844
  • Lanark County: Open Doors for Lanark Children and Youth, with offices in Carleton Place, Smiths Falls and Perth. 613-283-8260
  • Stormont, Dundas, Glengarry and Akwesasne (Cornwall Island): Single Point Access-for all child, youth, family and mental health services. Services in French and English. Main office, Cornwall, Ontario 613-938-9909 Toll free 1-888-286-KIDS (5437). Satellite office in Winchester.
  • Cornwall and area: Child and Youth Counselling Services (CYCS)- (Cornwall Community Hospital) provides assessment, therapy, and counseling. Services provided in English. Office in Cornwall 613-932-1558, limited outreach services in Winchester office.
  • To find a psychologist anywhere in Ontario: College of Psychologists of Ontario, 1-800-489-8388

Support

  • YouthNet is a mental health promotion program by youth, for youth. Offers art, snowboarding, hiking and yoga programs for youth.
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