Self-Harm: When Emotions Leave a Mark

The stress of the past year and a half has had an effect on all of us, including young people in Boys & Girls Clubs. Some reports suggest there may be a rise in self-harming behaviors in youth. National Director of Youth Development Programs Danielle Morris is back on the ClubX Blog to tell us what we need to know about this issue.

Please note: this post contains graphic descriptions and may be triggering for some readers. For immediate assistance during a crisis, call 911. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a trained Crisis Counselor with Crisis Text Line for free support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 

Have you ever felt overwhelmed, angry or frustrated? I know I sure have! These are common feelings that everyone will experience at some point in time. Perhaps these strong feelings emerge because something didn’t quite go as planned or work is piling up with what seems like no end in sight. When these strong feelings start to creep into my mind, heart and body, I feel compelled to find an emotional release. Some ways I find peace are by taking a long walk by myself, creating space to emotionally check out with a good book or moody Spotify playlist, or call one of my friends to talk it out.

What is Self-Harm?

For some people, however, their feelings can be so intense, unbearable and out of control that the only way they can find a sense of relief is by cutting, burning or injuring themselves. These behaviors are known as “self-harm.” Other types of self-harm include:

  • Scratching
  • Carving words or symbols into the skin
  • Hitting or punching oneself
  • Piercing the skin with sharp objects
  • Hair pulling
  • Picking at existing wounds

Self-harm can also show up as:

  • Poisoning oneself with toxic chemicals
  • Binge drinking/consuming toxic amounts of alcohol
  • Substance use or misuse
  • Starvation or binge eating
  • Excessive exercising
  • Deliberate sexual risk-taking

Why do youth, teens, and young adults self-harm?

Self-harm is a negative coping mechanism some youth, teens and young adults use to regain a sense of control. If they can’t control the emotional hurt and trauma they are or have experienced, self-harm creates a sense of “reclaiming their power”. Alternatively, if the person doesn’t feel any emotions, causing pain may allow them to “feel something” other than emotionally numb.

Self-harm is most common among teens and young adults who have experienced trauma either through a single event like the loss of a loved one or sustained traumatic experiences such as abuse, neglect, unstable family or living situations, or other traumas. Research has found that girls were nearly twice as likely to use self-harm as a coping mechanism than boys.

To be clear, self-harm is not a mental illness nor is it the same as a suicide attempt or ideation. Rather this represents behaviors that communicate that someone is struggling with big emotions and needs support. It is often associated with other unsafe coping mechanisms such as alcohol and substance use, obsessive thinking, or compulsive behaviors. Many of these behaviors are as a result of underlying mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Are You Okay Mental Health GIF by Seize the Awkward - Find & Share on GIPHY

What Should I Be Looking For?

It is often challenging recognizing when someone is hurting themselves, because self-harm is often done in private and kept hidden due to shame and fear. One point of caution: If you notice any of the signs of self harm, it is important that you don’t jump to conclusions. Self harm is about looking for patterns of behavior or injuries. Some signs to be on the lookout for if they occur frequently include:

  • Recent or new cuts and scratches
  • Teeth/bite marks
  • Burns
  • Cuts on the arms and legs

Other physical signs may include old bruises, scars, and bald patches in the hair, especially those that indicate a repeated pattern of harm.

What Can I Do to Help?

You’re a good friend, a loving family member or caregiver, a Club staff member or another caring adult. You’ve taken the steps to identify that you or someone you know is purposefully hurting themselves. Because you’ve done your research, you recognize that this behavior is sending a clear message that the person you know is experiencing big feelings and struggles to manage them. If this is you, thank you for what you’ve already done to support the person you know. Below, you’ll find a few ideas that may help:

  • Let the young person know that you care. You can’t force someone who practices self-harm to stop. Getting mad or angry at the person, rejecting them, or lecturing them on why injuring themselves is wrong will not stop them. In fact, this may reinforce their feelings of shame. Rather let them know you care. Help them understand that they do not have to deal with these big feelings alone. 
  • Support the person to identify the problem that is triggering the self-harm. Remember, self-harm is a symptom of something bigger. Try helping them identify what those triggers are that lead them to hurting themselves and tell someone about it. This process can be difficult if done alone. This is where a trained mental health professional can play a key role. Follow your Club’s reporting procedures if necessary.
  • Get help. Self-harming behaviors such as cutting and burning one’s self only provide a temporary feeling of relief. There are healthier, more sustainable ways to manage intense feelings. Encourage the person to tell someone who is safe, supportive and trusting about their feelings and the struggles they may be experiencing. Sometimes, acknowledging these feelings with a caring person in a safe and supportive environment creates a great sense of relief. If talking about it is too overwhelming, however, try writing a note, write a poem, or use other art forms to express feelings. Boys & Girls Club staff can find ways to teach youth about building coping skills in the new SMART Moves: Emotional Wellness guide and the Positive Club Climate: Meta-Moment guide.
Checking In Mental Health GIF by Seize the Awkward - Find & Share on GIPHY

For more around mental health and youth, check out the following ClubX Blog posts:

Handling Youth Disclosures

  • If a young person discloses concerns about their own mental health, thank them for their openness and for sharing, and if it was in a group setting, follow up with them separately to ensure they have the support they need.
  • If a young person shares that they have suicidal thoughts or intentions, your priority is to keep them safe. For immediate safety and life-threatening mental health concerns, call 911, and contact a parent or caregiver. If the youth is not in immediate danger of suicide, but might benefit from speaking to a trained crisis professional, consider using the Crisis Text Line by texting “Club” to 741-741 and contacting a parent or caregiver.
  • If a youth discloses past or present abuse or neglect, follow the requirements of your state’s mandated reporting laws and your Club’s safety policies.

Remember that as a youth development professional, you are not expected to act as a therapist or counselor. You should, however, be able to recognize warning signs that a young person needs additional support and know some places to go for help. If your Club has a social worker or therapist on staff, ask them to help during or after discussions with youth. If you do not have a mental health professional on staff and need additional guidance, contact your supervisor and create a plan for handling youth disclosures.

How do you meet youth mental health needs at your Club? What programming do you run around Emotional Wellness that other Clubs should know about? Comment below, on the BGCA Youth Development Facebook page, or email

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