Risk Factors of Self-Harm

Last week we introduced self harm, forms of it, statistics of self harm, and why people self harm. This week our blog will discuss risk factors of self-harm, warning signs, prevention, and how to treat it. 

Warning Signs and Risk Factors of Self-Harm

Self-harm typically begins in adolescence, when emotions can be volatile and teens are facing increased peer pressure, isolation, and conflicts with parents and authority figures.

Some factors that may increase the risk of self-harm include:

  • Having peers who self-injure
  • Trauma, abuse, unstable family environment, social isolation, and confusion about personal identity
  • Mental health issues 
  • Drug/alcohol use 

Warning signs of self-harm:

  • Scars, often in patterns
  • Fresh cuts, scratches, bruises, bite marks, or other wounds
  • Excessive rubbing of an area to create a burn
  • Sharp objects on hand
  • Wearing long sleeves or long pants, even in hot weather
  • Frequent reports of accidental injury
  • Difficulties in relationships
  • Behavioral and emotional instability, impulsivity, and unpredictability
  • Statements of helplessness, hopelessness, or worthlessness


Self-harm is not usually a suicide attempt, but it can increase the risk of suicide because of the emotional distress that triggers self-injury. This cycle of hurting the body in times of distress can increase the likelihood of suicide.

Preventing Self-Harm

There is no way to prevent someone from self-harming, but it’s possible to reduce the risk of self-injury through strategies with parents, family members, teachers, school nurses, coaches, and friends.

  • Offer help. Those at risk can be taught healthy coping skills that can be used during moments of distress. 
  • Encourage social connection. Those who self-harm often feel lonely and disconnected. By helping someone form connections to those who don’t self-injure can improve relationship and communication skills. 
  • Raise awareness. Learn about the warning signs of self-injury and what to do when you suspect it. 
  • Reach out for help. Encourage children, teens, and young adults to avoid secrecy and reach out for help if they have a concern about a friend or loved one. 
  • Talk about media influence. News media, social media, music, and other outlets that feature self-injury may inspire children and young adults to experiment. Teaching children critical thinking skills about the influences around them might reduce the harmful impact.

When Someone Self-Harms

If you’re worried a friend or loved one might be self-harming, ask them how they’re doing and be prepared to listen to the answer, even if it makes you uncomfortable. One of the best things is to tell them that while you may not fully understand, you’ll be there to help. Don’t dismiss their feelings and emotions nor joke about it.

Self-injury is too big of a problem to ignore and secrecy increases the risk. Here are some ways to your friends and loved ones:

  • If it’s your child, consult your pediatrician or other health care provider who can provide an initial evaluation or a referral to a mental health professional. Express your concern, but don’t yell at your child or make threats or accusations.
  • If it’s a pre-teen or teenage friend, suggest your friend talk to parents, a teacher, a school counselor, or another trusted adult.
  • If it’s an adult, gently express your concern and encourage the person to seek medical and mental health treatment.

When to Seek Emergency Help

If you have injured yourself severely or believe your injury is life-threatening, call 911. If you think you may attempt suicide, call 911.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, call the suicide hotline at 988 or use the web chat on suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat.

Otherwise, consider these options:

  • Call your local CTSHealth office or mental health professional if you are seeing one.
  • Seek help from your school nurse or counselor, teacher, doctor, or other health care provider.
  • Reach out to a close friend or loved one.
  • Contact a spiritual leader or someone else in your faith community.

Professional help will teach you healthy coping skills and resources for dealing with complex and painful experiences. You can recover and move forward in a better way.