self-harm intervention

Self-Harm Intervention | Help for Youth and Adults in Crisis

March is Self-Harm Awareness Month. Self-harm affects people of all ages, although it is primarily thought of as something that only young people do to themselves. For youth and adults in crisis, a self-harm intervention may be necessary for their physical and mental health and well-being.

Self-Harm in Youths

According to Mental Health America (MHA), self-injury in youths typically begins between the ages of 12 and 14. Teenagers may use self-harm behavior to cope with feelings of distress, anxiety, confusion, or sadness. The rate of non-suicidal self-injury may be as high as one-third to one-half of the adolescents in the US.

Youths who are heavily involved in social media usage may turn to their online friends for support and connection. Social media posts can also be a negative influence, even encouraging self-destructive behavior. Viewing content about self-harm on social media is a known trigger for similar behavior.

Self-Harm in Adults

In adults, self-injury behavior may begin out of an overwhelming sense of frustration, pain, or anger. When an adult is not sure how to deal with their emotions, or if they learned to hide their emotions as a child, they may engage in self-harm as a form of emotional release. If an adult seems incapable of feeling any kind of emotion, engaging in self-harm may be a way for them to feel something so they can overcome their emotional numbness.

Suicide Risk

Most people who self-harm do not intend to commit suicide. They are simply trying to find a way to deal with emotions, or a lack of emotions, that have overwhelmed them. In fact, some people will say they engage in self-injury because it keeps them from committing suicide. However, the risk of suicide is a real possibility, even if there is no express intent, particularly if the individual engages in an extreme form of harm or is under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Suicidal thoughts and self-harm do share some common risk factors, including:

  • Extreme emotion or a lack of emotion
  • A tendency to suppress emotions, especially if the individual does not have the ability to deal with emotional stress
  • Feelings of isolation
  • A history of trauma, abuse, or chronic stress
  • A history of drug or alcohol abuse.

Youth who self-harm are at increased risk for suicide. Research shows that 65 percent of youth who engage in self-injury behaviors will also have suicidal thoughts at some point, even if they do not act on them.

Understanding the Thought Process

It may be helpful for family members and friends to understand why someone would engage in self-harm. Researchers set out to do that as well and determined that there are four basic functions of self-harm as understood by the youth and adults in crisis.

They want to be released or relieved from a burden or an intense feeling. Youth, especially, may feel pressure or distress, even expressing self-hate. Engaging in self-injury, they say, helps them to experience a rush of positive feelings.

They want to be in control and to be able to cope with their difficult feelings. Through self-harm, they are able to rid themselves of the emotional pain associated with past trauma, as it gives them a sense of control.

Self-harm could represent unaccepted feelings for them. They cannot find the right words to express their feelings and want to protect their friends and family members from those feelings.

They see it as a way to connect. For youth, self-harm enables them to connect to others who share similar problems and who also feel like outsiders. It can be used as a way to express their internal pain and to ask for help.

Interventions for Self-Harm

When a friend or family member seems to be engaging in self-harm, they may be reaching out for help without knowing how to ask for it specifically. Self-harm intervention for a youth or adult who is engaging in self-injury behavior may be necessary to help them get treatment. It is important to be aware of the signs of self-harm.

The individual may have cuts, burns, bruises, or gashes on common self-harm sites, including their wrists, hands, thighs, or stomach. They may follow social media posts that promote self-harming behaviors. They may engage in other behaviors such as hair pulling or self-damaging scratching and picking. They wear long sleeves and long pants, even in warm weather, to cover up their injuries.

When approaching an individual about their self-harm behavior, it is important to concentrate on what is behind their actions, not on the behavior itself. A self-harm intervention, conducted by a professional, with concerned family members and friends, can also help the individual understand why they are engaging in self-harm and to move toward getting the help they need.


Early self-harm intervention is critical for the individual’s mental health and for the well-being of your family. At Whitman Recovery Service, our experienced intervention experts will help you hold an intervention for your loved one, guiding your family through the process of getting back on the right track. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we also provide telehealth services for your health and safety. Please call (210) 291-0278 if you or someone you care about is struggling with mental health or addiction issues. Our team has the expertise to help your family begin the journey of recovery.