The concept of self-harm can seem far removed from our lives if we do not experience it directly. It can be easy to assume that no one self-harms in our circle of friends and family, because it is often something that occurs in secret, hidden ways that are not easily identifiable. It is vital, therefore, that any action that inflicts pain or neglect on one’s own health and well-being be addressed.

So what is self-harm, what does it mean, and how we can detect it? Self-harm (also known as self-injury) is any intentional action of self-injury–such as cutting, burning, impulsive and irrational behaviours that ignore safety, ingesting harmful substances, and self-biting–that can be considered a type of self-harm. It is a behaviour that is performed for a multitude of reasons. It can be an attempt to translate emotional pain into physical pain, or to numb emotional pain; a maladaptive coping mechanism to deal with grief, violence, or illness; a form of punishment due to self-hatred, anger, or failure; a way to regain control over one’s body; and/or a stress response following a traumatic event. Self-harm can be addictive and can lead to serious physical harm (for example, cutting can lead to a significant loss of blood, scarring, impairment, or accidental fatality), psychological and emotional distress, and stress and anxiety. Self-harm can occur along with many mental illnesses, such as depression, Borderline Personality Disorder, or anxiety.

While often self-harm is kept hidden, here are some signs and symptoms to watch out for:

  • Unexplained injuries
  • Defensiveness or lying about injuries
  • Wearing long sleeves or pants in hot weather to cover scars
  • Avoiding people or social situations to hide injuries
  • Organized scar patterns or cuts that reappear in the same places

Self-harm is not the same thing as suicidal thoughts or attempts. In fact, self-harm is often used as a way to avoid attempting suicide. A majority of individuals who injure themselves do not feel suicidal while engaging in self-injury. Although very alarming, self-injury usually does not result in suicide. However, research has shown that self-harm may be associated with a higher possibility of suicide attempts.

What can we do if we suspect a loved one is self-harming, or how can we help ourselves if we realize we’re falling into the pattern? Here are some general suggestions from the Canadian Mental Health Association:

Educate and reduce stigma: It is so important to make the conversation of mental and emotional health an open topic! If you are worried that someone you care about is self-harming, break the taboo by gently bringing up your concerns, and make sure to listen carefully to what they say they need from you. Be supportive and avoid judgment so they feel safe coming to you.

Seek professional help: Self-harm is no small matter, and it is crucial to seek the help of mental health professionals who can assist you in finding alternative coping methods. You may not understand why you harm yourself, but professionals can provide you with the right tools to help curb and prevent your self-harm (through cognitive and behavioural therapies, medications, support groups, etc).

Change your coping habits: If your triggers are difficult to avoid, then replacing your behaviours with more adaptive ones may be the key: try to burn off anger or aggression with a work-out, a night out with friends, or a distraction like a cold shower. Sometimes all your brain needs in a moment of high stress is a quick change in pace, environment, or focus.

Eliminate the all-or-nothing mindset: Self-harm can be a form of addiction, and as such, one moment of relapse into a bad habit can make us succumb further (“well, if I already did it yesterday, why not do it again one more time?”). Forgive yourself and realize that you do not have to punish yourself by forgoing all the progress you may have put into not self-harming.

Like many addictions, self-harm can feel overwhelming and all-encompassing, and you may feel as if you can’t live without it. Overcoming self-harm by finding less harmful coping skills can take time and effort, but it will be worth it in the long run.

For help visit

–Nazila Tolooei
From Share&Care Summer 2023
Visit for references