Debunking Myths About Self-Harm

By: Jayson Tripp, MD


Self-harm is a common form of coping for a lot of people. But it’s a hard thing to understand if you haven’t been through it yourself, which is why there are a lot of misconceptions about it and how to help someone going through it. In this blog, we will explain a little bit about self-harm and it’s misconceptions.  

People Who Self-Harm

Many people believe that only women self-harm — this is not the case, however. In fact, every year, 1 in 5 women  and 1 in 7 men self-harm. Women only make up 60% of those who self-harm, meaning almost half of the people who self-harm are men.  

Another common belief about self-harm is that only teens engage in this type of behavior. And while 90% of people who self-harm started in their pre-teen or teen years, 50% of people continue this behavior into their early adulthood.  

Another important fact to note is that self-harm isn’t goth or emo behavior. There is no set personality-type that engages in self-harm. In fact, 2 million cases of self-harm are reported in the U.S. each year. 

Why People Self-Harm

People who self-harm do it for a reason, and that reason is to help them cope with the feelings of hopelessness that depression can cause. Self-harm is not about enjoying pain. People commonly engage in self-harm to distract from overwhelming emotions, to feel something physical, to develop a sense of control, or to self-punish. 

It is important to note that people do not self-harm to be manipulative or to get attention. In fact, many people who self-harm hide it from others. 

Forms of Self Harm

Perhaps the most well-known form of self-harm is cutting; however, that is not the only way people self-harm. Some other common forms of self-harm include:  

  • Burning
  • Interfering with wounds to prevent healing 
  • Hitting oneself or other objects 
  • Inserting objects into the skin 
  • Purposely bruising or breaking bones 
  • Hair pulling 

There are many more types of self-harm that people engage in, and they may be hard to recognize right away, which is why it’s important to be aware of the warning signs.  

Warning Signs of Self-Harm

While many people who self-harm hide it, there are still warning signs you can pick up on. For example, you will probably see markings such as scars, fresh cuts, burns, scratches, or bruises. Many people who self-harm also try to hide those by wearing long sleeves or pants, even when it’s hot. 

Some other warning signs of self-harm include difficulties with interpersonal relationships, persistent questions about their personal identity, behavioral and emotional instability, impulsiveness, unpredictability, or feeling helpless, hopeless, or worthless. 

How to Respond to Self-Harm

It is important to respond a certain way to self-harm because there is a risk that the person will respond poorly. For example, they could distance themselves from you or have another relapse.  

Important things to remember when responding to someone who self-harms is to stay calm and caring. Getting angry or panicking will only push the person away. Do not show shock or revulsion at what they’ve done. Instead, listen with compassion. 

When someone self-harms, it is important to know that they are engaging in the behavior to cope with difficulties or emotional pain they’re going through. Another good response would be to encourage them to seek help from a mental health professional.  

Remember, self-harm is an addicting behavior. It is important not to be upset with someone who is self-harming, even if they told you they won’t do it again. Self-harm is not something one can just stop or outgrow. It’s a coping mechanism, even if it’s a poor one. 

Trying to help a loved one who self-harms can be tricky. For example, instead of trying to use threats to get them to stop, or telling them to just stop, give them alternatives to self-harm that they could try to use to cope instead.  

People who self-harm aren’t always ready to talk about it. If you see someone with scars, do not pressure them into talking about it. Some people who self-harm are embarrassed or feel guilty about the behavior they engage in.  

Self-harm does not always mean the person is suicidal. Another reason people self-harm is to stop themselves from doing something worse, such as attempting to end their life. However, if you believe the person is in danger, you should call someone you trust or try to get help for them. 

Alternative Coping-Mechanisms to Self-Harm

Self-harm is a coping mechanism  — it’s just not a positive one. There are many more, healthier ways to cope with whatever it is you or a loved one may be going through. 

  • Holding ice — this is a great coping mechanism if you want to feel something. The physical sensation is more satisfying than you’d think. 
  • Cutting a fruit or Styrofoam cup – this coping mechanism works if you enjoy the action of cutting. This way you can still see the results, but you’re not harming yourself. 
  • Painting — this coping mechanism works really well because it allows you to express emotions in a positive manner. A good idea is to draw shapes on a canvas, then fill in those shapes with the colors that correspond with how you’re feeling. 
  • Drawing — this coping mechanism works for the same reason painting does because it allows you to express your emotions in a positive manner. It’s also a great distraction to focus on the details of your drawing. 
  • Drawing on yourself — this coping mechanism is good because if you want to see markings on your body, you can do so without hurting yourself. While you can draw anything, some people opt to draw lines to still get the feel of cutting.  
  • Writing down the emotions — this coping mechanism is a wonderful one because not only is it something to do, it also helps you learn how to deal with your emotions. It can be very useful to figure out any triggers you may have. 
  • Talking to a friend — having a support system is very important, which is why it’s a great coping mechanism to talk to your friend. You don’t have to talk about what’s bothering you, it can be a great distraction to hear about someone else’s life. 
  • Watching TV or movies — this coping mechanism isn’t the greatest, seeing as it’s only a distraction and you still might find a trigger in whatever you’re watching. Try to choose a movie or TV show with a positive message and storyline. 
  • Listening to music — it is important to listen to happy music if you’re choosing to use this coping mechanism. Listening to sad music — while it is nice to hear something relatable — will not pull you out of your negative mood. Whereas listening to happy music may change your mood into a more positive one. 

If you or someone you love is engaging in self-harm, know that you are not alone and you have options. Contact us  at Serenity Mental Health Centers to schedule an appointment with one of our amazing psychiatrists. 

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*All information subject to change. Images may contain models. Individual results are not guaranteed and may vary.