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Last Modified: March 01, 2021

Healthy Mind, Family Medicine


Self-Injury Awareness Day is on March 1 each year and aims to bring focus, education and awareness to self-harming behavior. According to research from the Journal of American Board of Family Medicine, approximately 4% of Americans self-harm. Therefore, the day aims to help friends and family recognize the warning signs while helping those in emotional distress find help. So, to gain a better understanding, we asked Marjorie Burns, LCSW, ACSW, Park Center, Parkview Behavioral Health Institute, to speak on this serious, often misunderstood condition while highlighting the corresponding mindset and resources available for those in need.

What is self-harm?

Self-harming is a pattern of behavior that occurs in every population and age set with a broad range of underlying factors that contribute to the act. Some common factors can include:

This behavior’s motivation can be incredibly complex, from emotional release to intense internal pain and suffering. No matter the reason, this condition is best explored in a trusting therapeutic relationship with a trained clinician.

What to look for 

Learning or suspecting that someone we care about is engaging in self-harming behavior can evoke many emotions, including fear, frustration and confusion. Often, confronting the individual can lead to increased invalidation and inspire the emotional reaction of shame and anger. Anyone who has experienced the urge to, or engaged in self-harm, deeply understands the power of intense negative emotions, persistent invasive urges and overwhelming emotional distress that can make it difficult to think clearly. Individuals often choose self-harm as a way to pull their minds from the intense distress they are experiencing.

Some common patterns of thought we have observed in our population may include:

  • If I cut, I will feel better.
  • When I see blood, the pain will go away.
  • Someone needs to understand how bad I feel inside.

The temporary relief that self-injury provides only serves to mask the underlying struggle the person is feeling. As stress intensifies and intense emotions return, it’s common for the urges to return as a conditioned response. A trained clinician must work with the individual to analyze and understand these behavioral impulses and underlying emotional factors to decrease the need to engage in the action.

Additionally, this behavior is often hidden or covered up with long sleeves, increased isolation and withdrawal from connections. When attempting to speak with a loved one, compassion, emotional validation and understanding are essential.

How to help

Seeking to understand their emotions while facilitating a trained mental health professional’s connection is essential in the healing process. Changing this pattern and behavior will take time and sustained engagement. Behavioral approaches to treatment are highly effective in addressing both the pattern and identifying the underlying emotional dynamics. One of the most widely researched, broadly effective and flexible approaches to addressing self-harming behavior is dialectical behavior therapy, which Marsha Linehan founded. This approach uses both group and individual sessions to learn well-developed coping skills that integrate mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation and distress tolerance.

Need help?

If you or someone you know is struggling with self-harming behavior or non-suicidal self-injury, please contact the Parkview Behavioral Health Helpline at 260-471-9440 or 800-284-8439, any time, 24 hours a day.

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