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Adolescent Self-Harm Epidemic

Updated: May 2, 2019

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among adolescents in the United States today from ages 10-24.

Dr. David Solomon MD explains self-harm as the intentional application of injury to oneself, with or without the intention to die. Self-harm is a much broader term than previously considered; self-harm used to be associated or classified as simply, a suicide attempt. This is not often the case as a new term has been created for this disorder called NSSI (non-suicidal self-injury).

A few important terms to clarify about self-injurious behavior from the CDC:


Death caused by self-directed injurious behavior with an intent to die as a result of the behavior.

Suicide attempt:

A non-fatal, self-directed, potentially injurious behavior with an intent to die as a result of the behavior; might not result in injury.

Suicidal Ideation:

Thinking about, considering, or planning suicide.

Various Forms of Self-Mutilation

Children, adolescents, and even adults self-mutilate in a number of ways. Rose-Minded offers these examples for educational purposes only, and does not support any form of self-harm. Parents and friends may use these forms as possible warning signs for self-harming adolescents.

  • Cutting

  • Burning

  • Poisoning through medication or toxic substances

  • Excessive scratching to draw blood

  • Punching or hitting oneself

  • Head banging against walls

  • Breaking bones or causing minor fractures

  • Inserting objects into body cavities

  • Strangulation

  • & some other risk-taking behaviors

children and adolescent self-harm and suicide in united states

Why Do Adolescents Self-Harm?

There are many theories as to why self-harm would be a coping mechanism for people, as it seems most people avoid injuring themselves, whether accidentally or intentionally. Listed below are a few reasons adolescents may choose to self-harm, whether it be NSSI or suicidal ideation.

1. Emotional Release

When puberty is running its course, society adds more pressure to young people by forcing them to transition slowly from child to adult. This transition may be accompanied by foreign emotions, bad moods, influential friends, challenging hardships, a problematic home life, and much more. Many children and adolescents are not educated to manage their mental health, let alone develop healthy coping methods for new life experiences.

The emotional release from injuring oneself can only be temporary. This release may last from a few minutes to the rest of the day, however the temporary feeling of release does not satisfy the basic needs for love, acceptance, safety, support, and well-being. Adolescents often isolate themselves during episodes of self-harm due to embarrassment, shame, or worry of someone taking immediate action.

2. Control

The feeling of not having control over important aspects of your life can be scary and uncomfortable. In order for some adolescents to make sense of this world, they sometimes try to take control of their life in unhealthy ways. Self-mutilation can be one of these ways, as adolescents feel they get to decide the actions and consequences.

The secretive nature of self-harm is also a way adolescents can feel in control of their own life. Feeling "powerful" and "in-charge" are two examples of how isolating oneself because of self-harm can imitate feelings of stability and control.

3. Mental Illness

It can be hard to detect many mental illnesses in adolescence, but some can still be prevalent at an early age.

50% of mental health cases begin at the age of 14, while 75% of mental illnesses are present by age 24 (

children and adolescent self-harm and suicide in united states

Mental illness can sometimes be hard to detect when the early warning signs and symptoms aren't obvious. Here are a list of possible warning signs for mental illness in adolescents from the American Psychiatric Association:

  • Mood changes

  • Feeling disconnected or disassociated from self or loved ones

  • Withdrawing from social events and previously-enjoyed activities

  • Acting nervous, overly-skeptical, anxious, or "on edge"

  • Apathy

  • Nonsense, or illogical, thinking patterns

  • Unusual, irregular, or dangerous behavior

  • Gain or loss of appetite

  • Problems with sleep (oversleeping, lack of sleep)

  • Increased stimulation or sensitivity to arousal

  • Problems with memory or reasoning

  • Problems with functioning, such as in school or at work

Remember that multiple symptoms must be present and obvious for any diagnosis of a mental illness. One week of troubled sleep isn't enough to declare a mental health disorder. Check out more on mental illness signs, symptoms, treatment options, etc. below:

How To Help Someone Who Self-Harms

Helping someone who self-harms is not an easy feat. Many times it's hard to even identify when someone is injuring themselves, let alone talk to them about treatments and healing. Here are some warning signs of an adolescent who may be self-harming:

>> Unexplained injuries, such as cuts, burns, scars, bruises, etc.

>> Low self-esteem

>> Negative self talk

>> Problems at school or work

>> Isolation

>> Avoiding conversation/confrontation

>> Problems in the home

>> Social relationship problems

>> Wearing very covering clothing in hot weather (long sleeves in summer, etc.)

>> Coming up with extravagant or repetitive excuses for injuries (the cat scratched me, I hit my arm on my desk at school, I burned myself while making pancakes, etc. as long as there's reasonable cause these are false excuses)

Treatment & Resources

There are many forms of treatment and available resources for mental health and mental illness, including NSSI. Talk with the adolescent (or child, adult, etc.) self-harming, and find the right treatment(s) that work for their needs and lifestyle.


Therapy can be an extraordinary tool for anyone suffering from mental health conditions. Psychotherapy is also known as "talk therapy" meaning it helps someone discuss unhealthy thoughts and behaviors and find healthy ways to cope.

One helpful form of therapy is online therapy. Online therapy is accessible, affordable, and fast for anyone seeking therapy from licensed professionals. Rose-Minded has partnered with Modern Therapy to bring loyal readers and mental health advocates a free week of online therapy to get started. Use the discount code ""roseminded"" for a free week of therapy with Modern Therapy.

children and adolescent self-harm and suicide in united states


Medication should be used in more extreme cases, where therapy alone does not help all or many of the symptoms. Anti-depressants, mood stabilizers, and anti-anxiety medications are available not only through prescription from a psychiatrist, but also in natural forms.

Natural forms of medication can range from aromatherapy and supplements to herbal and botanical ingredients. Nutrition is crucial to proper physical and mental health, as is body movement and social support. Medication should be considered only after other, safer, options have been tested, especially in children and adolescents. Medications often come with mild to severe side effects that can be worse than the initial mental health symptoms.


Writing in a journal can be considered a therapeutic practice because of all it's mental health benefits. Researchers have studied keeping a journal for mental health benefits and found it to be extremely effective at aiding mental health treatment and recovery. Mental health journal prompts are designed to provide introspective awareness, emotional intelligence, and personal development.

You can find mental health journal prompts available at Rose-Minded:


S.A.F.E. ALTERNATIVES® is a nationally recognized treatment approach, professional network, and educational resource base, which is committed to helping you and others achieve an end to self-injurious behavior.

Information Line: 1.800.366.8288

Identifying negative feelings and situations related to self-injury and distraction and substitution techniques.

Taking a mental health screening is one of the quickest and easiest ways to determine whether you are experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition. Mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety, are real, common and treatable. And recovery is possible.

Many people report being afraid to tell their parents because they do not want to upset them. Sometimes we don’t understand where troubling feelings or thoughts are coming from and feel guilty for having them. A good question to ask yourself in this situation is how would you feel if someone you love were suffering and came to you? Likely, you would be upset that they were struggling, but you would not be upset with them. You would be glad they confided in you and ready to help them in any way you could.

>> Self-Injury Outreach and Support

As part of a collaboration between McGill University and the University of Guelph, we are an international outreach organization providing current information and helpful resources about self-injury to individuals who self-injure, those who have recovered, as well as their caregivers and families, friends, teachers and the health professionals who work with them.


One way Rose-Minded is taking action for those who suffer from NSSI or suicidal ideation is through social support and preventative communication. Online forums are a great way to participate in active learning, encouragement, and support from like-minded individuals. Mental health still has stigma surrounding it, especially mental illness and suicide, so an online forum was created to be a safe place for discussion and interaction about mental health topics and issues.

Use the forum to inquire about symptom management from others, or find support around a topic hard to speak about with others. Parents can use this forum to communicate about adolescent self-harm behaviors and appropriate responses, while teenagers can use their own space to find peer support. You can contribute to the conversation as a member, or just view the discussions at Community Support.

Become a member of Rose-Minded at the top of any site page, or on the contact page!

children and adolescent self-harm and suicide in united states

Suicide rates doubled in adolescents aged 15-19, and tripled in adolescents aged 10-14 in the United States from 1960 to 1990 ( Self-harm may not always lead to suicide, but the feelings and behaviors associated with self-harm prove to be a risk to adolescents choosing to injure themselves. If you, or anyone you know, is having suicidal thoughts please don't hesitate to call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1.800.273.8255.


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