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Nonsuicidal Self-Injury in Children and Adolescents

By

Josephine Elia

, MD, Sidney Kimmel Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University

Last full review/revision Mar 2019| Content last modified Mar 2019

Nonsuicidal self-injury refers to intentional harm to self that is not intended to cause death. Examples are superficial scratching, cutting, or burning the skin (using cigarettes or curling irons), as well as stabbing, hitting, and repeatedly rubbing the skin with an eraser.

(See also Suicidal Behavior in Children and Adolescents.)

Adolescents who abuse drugs or other substances are more likely to injure themselves.

In some communities, self-injury suddenly becomes a fad in a high school, and many adolescents do it. In such cases, self-injuries gradually stop over time.

Self-injury suggests that an adolescent is in great distress. However, in many adolescents, self-injury does not indicate that suicide is a risk. Instead, it may be a self-punishing action that they feel they deserve. Self-injury can also be used to gain the attention of parents and/or significant others, express anger, or identify with a peer group. In other adolescents (those with more severe mental disturbances and less social support), the risk of suicide is increased.

Other factors that may increase the risk of suicide include the following:

  • Harming themselves often
  • Using several methods to harm themselves
  • Feeling less socially connected to other people, especially their parents
  • Feeling that life has little or no meaning
  • Seeking mental health care often
  • Having suicidal thoughts

All adolescents who deliberately injure themselves should be evaluated by a doctor experienced in working with troubled adolescents. The doctor tries to determine whether suicide is a risk and to identify the underlying distress that led to self-injury.

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