For a young person, the everyday ups and downs of going to school, living with family, and discovering the world can take a toll on their mental health. Sometimes, adolescents may feel so overwhelmed by negative feelings and painful emotions that they harm themselves, perhaps slowly at first before becoming more dependent.
Without the right treatment and help from a mental health professional, this type of emotional distress could devolve into long-term consequences or — even worse — suicidal thoughts. As a direct threat to a student’s wellbeing, it’s important for your school district to know the warning signs of self-harm and how you might make a difference.
In this guide, we’ll help you understand self-harm behavior, its many risk factors, and what you can do to detect their warning signs before it’s too late.
If you want to wrap your head around self-harm, you need to know exactly what it is and what it isn’t. Let’s clear the air and make sure you fully understand this behavior’s nuances.
The term self-harm refers to when a person intentionally hurts themselves to cope with emotional distress or trauma. This can include physical pain (such as cutting oneself) or emotional pain (such as thought patterns that repeatedly lower one’s self-esteem).
Importantly, self-harm is not a mental illness or a disorder. It is an unhealthy coping mechanism that can be in relation to an underlying mental health condition, such as borderline personality disorder, anxiety, an eating disorder, or PTSD.
Self-harm behavior is more common than you might think. According to one recent study, up to 25% of young people are affected by self-harm. Although people of any age engage in this behavior, it most commonly occurs among adolescents.
In fact, the average age of a young person’s first incident is just 13 years old, according to a 2018 report. This seems to align with the onset of new stressors at school, home, and society. Children are urged to think about their place in the world, torn by new hormones.
What’s most concerning is that self-harm appears to be on the rise. Since 2009, emergency room trends indicate self-harm has risen at an alarming rate of 18% every year. A more recent analysis of over 32 billion healthcare records shows that adolescent medical claims for intentional self-harm nearly doubled between April 2019 and 2020.
Types of self-harm
Generally, there are two types of self-harm behavior:
1. Physical self-harm refers to intentionally inflicting physical pain on oneself, such as:
- Burning your own skin
- Breaking bones
- Pulling out hair
- Getting into fights
- Having unsafe sex
- Substance abuse
2. Digital self-harm is when someone intentionally inflicts emotional pain on themselves online, such as:
- Posting self-deprecating content
- Spreading false rumors
- Leaving nasty comments on your own social media
- Sharing embarrassing photos or videos of yourself
Causes and risk factors
The most common causes for self-injury may be a combination of the following risk factors:
- Genetic risk factor: Some people are born into families that have a history of mental illness, and are consequently at higher risk of developing the urge to self-harm.
- Physical risk factor: An imbalance in emotional regulation may trigger self-injury out of a desire to feel emotion.
- Environmental risk factor: Adolescents who’ve experienced abuse and other types of trauma are at a greater risk for self-harm because it’s used as a way to cope with negative emotions.
The long-term effects of self-harm
Self-harm can have devastating long-term consequences on those who try it. In addition to broken bones, social isolation, permanent scarring, or low self-esteem. Someone who self-harms might also develop suicidal thoughts.
A recent study from Florida Atlantic University reveals that those engaged in digital self-harm are between five and seven times more likely to consider suicide. Even worse, they’re also nine to 15 times more likely to actually make a suicide attempt.
The warning signs of self-harm and self-inflicted injury
Before you can help a student in emotional distress you need to know how to spot them. And to do that, you’ll need to know the basic warning signs of self-harm in all their forms.
Here’s a list of the most common signals you need to look out for in your district.
Physical warning signs
- Unexplained scars
- Fresh cuts and bruises
- Broken bones
- Patches of missing hair
- Carrying razors and sharp objects
Behavioral warning signs
- Impulsive or unstable behavior
- Challenges sustaining friendships
- Withdrawing from once-enjoyed activities
- Brushing off injuries as frequent accidents
- Drinking heavily to excess or abusing drugs
- Wearing long sleeves in hot weather
Psychosocial warning signs
- Emotional numbing (i.e. not feeling emotion as one should)
- Emotional instability
- Mood swings and sudden outbursts
- A feeling of guilt or shame
Digital warning signs
- Discussing hurting oneself
- Suicidal writings or content
- Self-deprecating content
Monitoring self-harm in your cloud domain
When it comes to self-harm and suicide prevention, schools need to keep a close eye on students to make sure warning signs aren’t going untreated. If a student’s emotional distress isn’t detected the situation may go from bad to worse.
Picking up on those signals is difficult enough in the real world, let alone online. With more access to school-provided cloud services, students are using cloud apps more frequently, leaving behind a trail of safety signals in the process.
But without the right technology, those signals stay where they are. Nobody sees them, they aren’t investigated, and ultimately the student doesn’t get the help they need. Fortunately, that’s what self-harm monitoring technology is for.
A self-harm monitoring platform provides you the insight you need to help detect at-risk students as quickly as possible. By automating detection, your student resources team can respond to an emerging risk before it’s too late, regardless of the size of your IT team. Then, knowing who created the content and where, you can initiate the appropriate response and align students with a mental health professional if necessary.