If you’re a high school student in a class of 20 pupils, the chances are that as many as four of your peers in the room have at some point in their lives hurt themselves on purpose.
That’s the statistical probability of self-harm among young people, according to the UK nonprofit Mental Health Foundation (MHF).
A growing problem around the world, self-harm or self-injury means hurting yourself on purpose. It can be by cutting oneself with a sharp object, burning oneself, pulling out hair, hitting oneself or picking at wounds to prevent healing. “Extreme injuries can result in broken bones,” said the U.S. National Alliance on Mental Illness.
The most common form of self-harming, also called “non-suicidal self-injury” (NSSI), is cutting, which represents just under half of the cases, according to the MHF.
According to a study of youths aged 12-18 in 41 countries conducted between 1990 and 2015, 17% of the participants had harmed themselves at some point.
Girls were more likely to self-harm than boys, according to the study. The average age of starting self-harm was 13 years. Just under half of the participants in the study reported only one or two episodes in their lives, and cutting was the most common type.
A separate study, published in 2015, found that 12.1% of adolescents reported some form of self-harm during their lives.
Between 2009 and 2015, there was a 50% increase in reported self-harming among young women, according to yet another study.
“Half of my friends self-harm or have a self-harm history,” a girl from my school told me.
Those with mental health disorders, members of LGBTQ+ community are more likely to self-harm.
Why do youths self-harm? The reasons, according to the MHF, vary from person to person and include: difficulties at home, arguments or problems with friends, school pressures, bullying, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, transitions and changes such as changing schools, alcohol and drug use.
Young people suffering from mental health disorders or who have been neglected or abused, as well as members of the LGBTQ+ community, are more likely to self-harm, according to the MHF.
I spoke to Norbert Hänsli, a Swiss psychologist who has written a book on self-harm. He said that sometimes it can be difficult to differentiate between self-harm and nervous habits. If nail-biting, pulling at one’s hair and skin-scratching are done subconsciously, they are no more than nervous habits. But they can veer into self-harm when done with an intention of injuring oneself.
“When I wrote my book 30 years ago, NSSI wasn’t a well-known issue, not in any youth counseling center or clinics,” Hänsli said. “That doesn’t mean it didn’t exist, but the condition was less prevalent.”
Self-harm can easily develop into an unhealthy coping mechanism. Some people self-harm because it provides temporary relief from overwhelming and distressing thoughts or feelings. …….