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Youth and Self-harm

People cope with difficult thoughts, feelings, or situations in different ways. Some people cope by injuring themselves on purpose—and it may be the only way for them to feel better. Self-harm may seem frightening, but it’s important to look beyond the injuries and see what’s really going on.

What is self-harm? Self-harm means that someone hurts themself on purpose but doesn’t intend to end their life. Common acts of self-harm include cutting skin, burning skin, hitting yourself to the point of injury, and preventing wounds from healing. Self-harm itself isn’t a mental illness but may be a sign that someone needs care and support. In some cases, self-harm can be a sign of a mental health problem. People self-harm for many different reasons. Individuals have reported self-harm to:

People who self-harm are not trying to end their lives, but they can experience thoughts of suicide. When they self-harm, they are trying to cope with difficult or overwhelming thoughts or feelings.

Warning Signs

People who self-harm often hide the behaviour. They may feel embarrassed or ashamed, and they may avoid talking about it. Warning signs include:

Who is more likely to engage in self-harm?

Anyone can self-harm, but it is more prevalent during adolescence and the young adult years. People experiencing marginalization are at higher risk to self-harm: studies have found 2SLGBTQ2+ youth as well as women and girls are more likely to self-harm compared to their peers.

Environmental stressors, particularly those in childhood, increase one’s likeliness to harm themselves. Those experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or trauma due to a history of childhood maltreatment are particularly at risk of self-harming.

If I self-harm, what can I do about it?

If you self-harm, it’s important to begin talking with someone you trust. This could be a friend, a family member, a teacher, a school counsellor, or anyone you feel comfortable talking with. Your support person can help you work through next steps, like talking with a doctor or other health care professional. If you self-harm, it’s important to look after your injuries. If you’re concerned about an injury, talk to your doctor, go to your local emergency room, or call 9-1-1. You should be treated with respect no matter how the injury was caused. Self-harm isn’t a mental illness, but in some cases it can be a sign of a mental health problem. It’s important to talk with your doctor about self-harm and any other problems you’re experiencing. If self-harm is related to a mental illness, having treatment for the mental illness may help you reduce your self-harming.

Counselling and support

Even if self-harm isn’t related to a mental illness, it’s still best to talk with a mental health professional or a school counsellor. Your doctor may be able to recommend a counsellor who can help you. Alternatively, you may find a registered counsellor on the websites of the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association or the Canadian Professional Counsellors Association. Counsellors can help you work through the thoughts, feelings, or situations behind self-harm, teach you skills to cope with difficult thoughts and feelings, and help you find alternatives to self-harm. Two types of counselling that may help self-harm are cognitive-behavioural therapy and dialectical behaviour therapy. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (or ‘CBT’) helps you understand the relationship between your thoughts, feelings, and actions. It also teaches you skills like problem-solving and stress management. Dialectical behaviour therapy (or ‘DBT’) teaches you open and flexible ways of thinking. It also teaches skills like acceptance, problem-solving, and coping with difficult or uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and situations.

It can be very helpful to connect with support groups. They are a place to share your own experiences and learn from others, and help you connect with people who understand what you’re going through. Support groups may be offered by schools, community organizations, and mental health service providers. If there isn’t a support group in your area, you may find groups online. Self-help strategies that boost your well-being can also help you work through self-harm.

Self-help might include connecting with family, friends, or a support group, eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, and spending time on things you enjoy. You’ll find many of these strategies in counselling, but you can practice them on your own, too.

How can I help a loved one?

If you are concerned about a friend or family member, it’s okay to ask if they are harming themselves. Talking about self-harm won’t make someone start hurting themselves. It can be difficult to hear what your loved one has to say. Self-harm may not make sense to you and you may wonder why someone would hurt themself. However, your loved one’s feelings are very real and it is important to try and understand them. Here are a few tips for helping a loved one:

Do you need more help?

Contact a community organization like the Canadian Mental Health Association to learn more about support and resources in your area. Find your local CMHA here.

Founded in 1918, the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) is the most established, most extensive community mental health federation in Canada. Through a presence in more than 330 communities across every province and the Yukon, CMHA provides advocacy, programs and resources that help to prevent mental health problems and illnesses, support recovery and resilience, and enable all Canadians to flourish and thrive. For more information, please visit