Teen mental health and self harm: Understanding why

Today, and over the next few weeks, I want to tackle an important mental health issue most common with teens: self-harm. Self-harm is a behaviour associated with mental health that is rarely talked about, but is actually quite common. Rates of self-harm in teenagers range from 14-39%. There are a lot of misconceptions and mystery around this behaviour. This post is for you if you want to understand self harm. I want to dispel some myths and help you to understand more about why you, your teen, grandchild or friend is self-harming. Next week I’ll continue this topic by focussing on how it feels to struggle with self-harm, and how to help.

Self-harm can be difficult to stop. So if you are a young person feeling guilty for not being able to snap out of it; or if you are a parent feeling frustrated that your child is continuing with this behaviour, know that it’s very normal to find it a hard habit to break. It’s important to understand that it’s not easy and takes support, time and determination. This article will explain why in a bit more detail, but importantly, if you or your child are struggling with self-harm, do seek professional help. This is one area of mental health where professional help is important, for a full assessment of underlying issues and risk.

What is self-harm?

People often think of self-harm as cutting. And it often is. But self-harm can take many other forms. In essence self harm is hurting yourself on purpose. It is not a mental illness, but is a behaviour often associated with mental illness.

Challenging misconceptions

There are many misconceptions about why people self harm:

It’s just a phase they’ll grow out of; It’s a suicide attempt; It’s a cry for help; It’s attention-seeking; They’re just copying their friends...

The reality is it’s complicated. And there isn’t just one reason why people self-harm. We’ll discuss the common reasons. But the key is not to make any assumptions. Instead be curious, non-judgemental and try to understand it from their point of view.

Coping with big feelings

The most common reason is that self-harm is a way of coping with unmanageable feelings. This has a neurological basis. There is more information on the effect of self-harm on the brain here. In a nutshell, people who self-harm will typically find that the physical pain is initially calming and that stronger emotions are dulled. There can be a sense of relief which can be a way of coping with underlying strong negative emotions. These effects can make self-harm seem like an effective coping strategy and can make stopping self harm difficult. However, the positive effects are just short-term, and typically a significant dip in mood follows.


In terms of self-harm being seen as a cry for help, sometimes this is true and sometimes not. Self-harm is the outward expression of significant inward distress. Self-harming can sometimes be a way of communicating this when you can’t put it into words. Showing self-harm can be a way of communicating a very clear message that someone is hurting and needs some help. However, it is a misconception that self-harm is always a method to seek help. It is often done in private and secret. Scars are hidden from view and methods for self-harm are hidden. In this case it is not that help isn’t needed, but the primary reason may not be to seek help.


Another common reason people self-harm is as a punishment. This can be hard to understand for a parent or friend. Why would they need to be punished? Some mental health issues can include low self-esteem, which can cause very strong negative feelings towards self.

Self-harm and suicide

When someone is self-harming, it is a sign that they are struggling, and need more support. It is never a behaviour to be ignored. Self-harming and attempting suicide are two different things. That is not to say they don’t look very similar and that they are not linked. Often teens who self-harm will be experiencing suicidal thoughts. And self-harming can escalate into suicidal behaviours. This is why self-harm should always be taken seriously and why it is so important to seek professional help, if you or your child are self-harming.

Self-harm is a behaviour. And whether it is about managing emotions, communicating or as a punishment; this behaviour serves a purpose. But there is always a reason behind self-harm. Often there is an underlying mental health condition such as depression. Sometimes people who self-harm have experienced trauma. Something has caused things to be unmanageable and self-harm has become a way to try and cope.

Self-harm is a serious issue but a conversation about self-harm does not need to be avoided. The first step in tackling self-harm is to understand it. I hope this post has helped you to understand more. Keep an eye out for the next post in which we’ll explore more about what it feels like to struggle with self-harm. In the meantime, if you or your child are struggling do seek support. It is certainly something we can help with at Imagine Therapy. Visit our website more more information and to book a free initial consult. And if you are in crisis and need immediate help contact provincial services. Self-harm is not something you need to live with. There is help available and change is always possible.

2 Comments on “Teen mental health and self harm: Understanding why

  1. Pingback: Reblog: “Teen mental health and self harm: Understanding why — Imagine Therapy” – From famine to feast.

    • I’m really glad you liked the post. Thanks for the link. I’m planning to write on self-harm again over the next few weeks so look out for them, if you’d like to read more.

      Liked by 1 person

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