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Is Self-Harm an Addiction?

Is Self-Harm an Addiction?

A woman on the phone calling a help line to discuss her self-harm struggles.

In Canada, the prevalence of self-harming behaviours has become a growing concern. In 2018 alone, 25,000 Canadians were hospitalized or died due to self-harming behaviours. The percentage of hospital visits due to self-harm was even higher in 2020. Parents, caregivers, and healthcare professionals must be aware of the signs of self-harm and provide a supportive environment for young individuals who may be struggling.

Self-harm can be understood as a coping mechanism people may use to deal with overwhelming emotions. While self-harm is not officially considered an addiction, some individuals can become dependent on self-harm as a means of emotional control. Whether we label it as an addiction or not, it’s clear that when someone engages in self-harm, they may need support. By recognizing self-harm as an addictive behaviour, we can start a meaningful conversation about how to support those who repeatedly harm themselves.

If you or someone you know is struggling with self-harm, please reach out to us at Distress Centre. Our compassionate team is here to listen, support, and help you access the resources you need.

What Is Self-Harm?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “self-harm or self-injury means hurting yourself on purpose.”

Self-harm can take various forms, such as cutting, burning, or hurting oneself in some other way. These actions are often carried out in private and may leave visible marks or wounds—but people who self-harm often make an effort to hide these signs.

Why Do People Self-Harm?

For some individuals, self-harm can be a way to deal with and alleviate negative emotions. It may serve as a way to prove they can tolerate pain, a way to punish themselves, or—less commonly—a way to communicate to others they need help

Self-harming behaviour often begins in the preteen or early teen years. Many young people face immense pressure from various sources, such as academic expectations, social dynamics, or personal challenges. Engaging in self-harm may offer some a temporary sense of control over their bodies and emotions when everything else feels chaotic or overwhelming. 

Self-harm may also serve as a form of emotional regulation, providing a temporary release or distraction from the pain they experience internally. For young people who may have difficulty regulating their emotions, self-harm can be particularly alarming because it may stimulate a dopamine response in the brain, making it an addicting way to deal with stress or emotional turmoil. 

Is Self-Harm a Sign of Suicidal Thoughts?

While self-harm can be distressing and alarming, it does not always indicate an immediate risk of suicide. It may be a way for them to gain a sense of control over their negative emotions.

Self-harm and suicidal thoughts are different things, although they can coexist. Self-harm serves as a way to alleviate negative emotions rather than a direct desire to end one’s life. However, it’s essential to take self-harm seriously and view it as a sign that someone is struggling emotionally and needs support.

If you are concerned that a loved one may be having suicidal thoughts, it’s important not to shy away from the subject. If they’re open to talking about it, there are ways you can support them, including helping them create a safety plan.

Signs of a Self-Harm Addiction

If you think someone you care about may be self-harming, it’s important to approach the situation with empathy and understanding. Recognizing the signs can help you provide support and encourage them to seek the help they need. 

While there are some possible signs of self-harm, keep in mind that these signs could be an indication of a variety of things, including other mental health issues. 

Signs of self-harm may include:

  • Changes in Behaviour: People who are self-harming may become more reserved and withdrawn. Note sudden changes in behaviour, like withdrawal from social activities, increased isolation, or a decline in academic or work performance. 
  • Unexplained Injuries: These injuries may appear as cuts, burns, bruises, or scratches. It’s important to note that self-harm methods can vary, and not all injuries may be immediately obvious.
  • Wearing Long-Sleeved Clothing: Individuals who self-harm may consistently wear clothing that covers their body, even in warm weather. 
  • Emotional Changes: They may exhibit signs of depression, anxiety, or extreme irritability. They may also have difficulty expressing emotions or appear emotionally numb.
  • Isolation and Avoidance: Someone who self-harms may isolate themselves from friends and family, avoiding social interactions or situations where their injuries may be discovered. 
A person hugging a loved one to show signs of empathy and support for self-harm and mental health struggles.

How to Help Someone with a Self-Harm Addiction

If you think someone you care about is struggling with a self-harm addiction, it’s essential to take an active role in supporting them. While each person and situation is different, there are some actionable steps you can take to offer help while remaining open, helpful, and kind.

Initiate a Conversation 

Start by expressing your concern gently and using “I” statements to avoid sounding accusatory. For example, say, “I’ve noticed that you may be going through a tough time. I’m here to listen and support you.”

Listen Without Judgment

Create a safe and non-judgmental space where they can feel comfortable opening up. Avoid judgment or expressing anger at their actions. Focus on the underlying factors that may have led them to self-harm instead of the act itself.

Encourage Healthy Coping Skills 

Help them explore alternative coping mechanisms that are more constructive. Encourage them to seek new hobbies, engage in physical activities, or express themselves through creative outlets.

Be a Source of Support

Remind them that they don’t have to face their struggles alone. Let them know that you’re there for them, whether they need someone to talk to, a shoulder to lean on, or assistance in finding additional resources

For young people struggling with self-harm, ConnecTeen is a resource that provides 24-hour crisis and emotional support by phone, text and chat. Young people can connect with youth volunteers from 3 PM – 10 PM on weekdays and 12 PM – 10 PM on weeknights. Outside of these hours, adult volunteers are available to help.

Resources for Self-Harm Addiction

When it comes to supporting individuals struggling with self-harm addiction, professional help can play a vital role in the recovery journey for many. If your teen or loved one is struggling with self-harm, there are resources available, like professional counselling and crisis support, to provide assistance and guidance.

At Distress Centre, we can support people dealing with self-harm addiction. We provide a safe and confidential space where individuals can express their feelings and concerns without judgment. Trained responders are available to listen, offer guidance, and connect individuals with additional resources.

In the spirit of respect, reciprocity and truth, Distress Centre Calgary would like to honour and acknowledge Moh’kinsstis, and the traditional Treaty 7 territory and oral practices of the Blackfoot confederacy: Siksika, Kainai, Piikani, as well as the Îyâxe Nakoda and Tsuut’ina nations. We acknowledge that this territory is home to the Métis Nation of Alberta, Region 3 within the historical Northwest Métis homeland. Finally, we acknowledge all Nations – Indigenous and non – who live, work and play on this land, and who honour and celebrate this territory.