It is sometimes a subtle condition that often goes unnoticed by parents, but mental health providers warn that self-mutilation could lead to more serious problems for teenagers and young adults.
Self-harming occurs when adolescents intentionally and repeatedly harm themselves impulsively, but not lethally.
Kristy Tipton, the division director for crisis specialty services at Frontier Health, said some teenagers injure themselves in an attempt to cope with difficult and challenging emotions.
And the quarantines and social isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has made the problem much worse for some.
“While I’ve not seen any direct data, I’d say the pandemic has been very difficult on teenagers and young adults, who are usually very sociable,” Tipton said. “They struggle without face-to-face contact.”
Frontier Health officials note most teens who self-harm say it is their way to cope with difficult or painful feelings they have that are often linked to past experiences with abuse, neglect or trauma.
March has been designated by mental health organizations across the country as a month to raise awareness about self-harm. During this time, Frontier Health and other mental health providers offer parents, teachers and other caregivers with advice for spotting self-harm.
The most common methods for self-harm include:
• Skin cutting.
• Hair pulling.
• Punching objects or oneself.
• Excessive scratching.
• Head banging.
• Burning oneself.
• Purposely breaking bones.
Signs that a teenager may be engaging in self-harm include:
• Scars, often in patterns.
• Fresh cuts, scratches, bruises, bite marks or other wounds.
• Excessive rubbing of an area to create a burn.
• Keeping sharp objects on hand.
• Wearing long sleeves or long pants, even in hot weather.
Tipton said recognizing the symptoms of self-harm can often be difficult for parents. She said they should take note of changes in their child’s mood or behavior, such as a loss of interest in things they normally engage in and sleeping more than usual.
Although in most cases self-harm is not typically a suicide attempt, Tipton said it can cause medical complications and progress into more serious destructive behavior. She said parents and guardians should treat the behavior as a serious matter and not dismiss it as simply blowing off steam.
“This is a clear sign their emotional needs are not being met,” Tipton said.
Parents should consult school counselors and mental health providers, such as Frontier Health, for advice in offering teens with self-harm issues better coping methods. That includes getting them involved in more family, sports and outdoor activities.
They should also be encouraged to get together with friends more often.
If you suspect someone may be engaging in self-harm, Frontier Health urges you contact one of its mental health facilities (which can be found at frontierhealth.org/locations) or call its 24/7 crisis hotline at 1-877-928-9062.
A walk-in center is open 24/7 and available to adults and children 7 years and older at Frontier Health’s Turning Point location in Johnson City.