During the pandemic, the rates of non-suicidal self-harm and suicide attempts increased among young people. Parents and health providers need to understand why individuals engage in self-harming behavior to prevent this trend from continuing.
Learn the contributing factors behind the recent increase in self-harm and discover how to support individuals struggling with injurious behaviors and suicidal ideation.
What Is Self-Harm?
Self-harm is the act of purposefully injuring oneself. Many people associate self-injury with suicide attempts, but individuals often use self-harm to cope with strong negative emotions or overwhelming feelings. This practice is known as non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI).
NSSI can take many forms, including:
- Punching or hitting oneself
- Hair pulling
- Excessive exercise
Some adults engage in NSSI, but this behavior is most common among adolescents and young adults.
Risk Factors Associated With Self-Harm
Individuals with certain risk factors are more likely to self-harm than others. Those risk factors include:
- Mental health issues like depression and anxiety
- Substance abuse
- Strained family relationships
- Friends who self-injure
If an adolescent you care about is dealing with any of the above, they may be at increased risk of NSSI.
How Are Suicide and an Increase in Self-Harm Related?
While NSSI is unrelated to suicide, those who self-harm are at increased risk of suicide. This is because risk factors for self-harm and suicide are intertwined. However, it is important to note that not everyone who engages in NSSI is suicidal.
The key difference between NSSI and a suicide attempt is intent. When someone uses self-harm as a coping mechanism, their goal is to release negative feelings, not end their lives. If NSSI escalates into potentially fatal behavior, it becomes a suicide attempt.
Examining Self-Harm and Suicide Rates in the Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the mental health of many individuals and worsened existing illnesses, including depression and anxiety. As a result, experts have noticed an increase in self-harm in adolescents.
Why Did Self-Harm in Adolescents Increase?
Among adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18, self-harm rates increased by over 99% between 2019 and 2020. Several studies have attempted to determine why an increase in self-harm occurred during this period. They have identified a few main causes, including mobile phone usage, stressful learning situations, social isolation, a lack of coping mechanisms, and strained family relationships. Additionally, many young people have struggled to access mental health care during the pandemic.
Ultimately, the underlying cause of increased self-harm rates was an increase in overall mental health issues. Rates of depression and anxiety grew 25% in the first year of the pandemic. Because individuals often use self-harm as a coping mechanism for these illnesses, it is not surprising that rates of NSSI rose as well.
Since depression and anxiety rates climbed, many people assume that the rate of suicide did as well. However, the opposite occurred.
Did Suicide Increase?
When the pandemic first began, many experts predicted an increase in suicides, but it soon became apparent that rates of suicide were on the decline. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide deaths actually decreased by 3% in the United States from 2019 to 2020. In April 2020, when some of the most strict lockdowns occurred, suicide rates were 14% lower than a year prior.
Pandemic suicide rates do not tell the whole story, however. While overall suicide rates declined, suicide attempts among adolescents increased. Additionally, calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline rose to nearly 2.4 million in 2020, signaling a widespread mental health crisis.
As young people continue to struggle with social isolation, emotional distress, and feelings of depression and anxiety, we need to focus on effectively treating the underlying causes of self-harm and suicidal ideation.
How To Support Someone Struggling With Self-Harm
It is often difficult to understand how a loved one could deliberately harm themselves. However, reacting with anger or judgment is not the best way to help someone experiencing NSSI urges. Here is a guide to supporting someone who struggles with thoughts of self-harm.
Assess for Risk
An individual engaging in NSSI may need immediate medical attention. If you discover signs of self-harm or ideation, assess the individual for risk and seek out help if necessary.
Many treatment centers perform risk assessments when an individual with thoughts of self-harm arrives. If you feel unprepared to adequately assess someone you care about, consider seeking help from a professional.
Be Empathetic and Avoid Judgment
It is important to offer support to someone who experiences thoughts of self-harm. If you discover that someone you care about is engaging in NSSI or thinking about doing so, listen without judgment. Family members should never shame individuals experiencing thoughts of self-harm or respond with anger.
If someone you care about is experiencing thoughts of suicide or engaging in NSSI, they need immediate help. Depending on the severity of their thoughts, an individual may need outpatient therapy or inpatient treatment.
For those who experience thoughts of self-harm but are not in danger, therapy and alternative treatments are excellent options. Some individuals are successful in replacing NSSI with healthy coping mechanisms, such as exercise, meditation, mindfulness, or art therapy.
Thoughts of self-harm are a sign that someone might need residential treatment for depression. Learn more about when and why an inpatient program is necessary. Read Our Guide
Address Underlying Causes at a Self-Harm Treatment Center
Self-harm is a coping mechanism for underlying stressors. To combat the recent increase in self-harm, individuals should focus on treating depression, anxiety, or trauma. At PCH, we treat individuals struggling with self-injury by getting to the root of their underlying psychological issues and offering professional support in a non-judgmental space. Learn more about how we help individuals develop healthy coping mechanisms in our self-harm treatment center.