By Hannah Maine

Self-harm is defined as any act of deliberately causing injury to one’s body, without intent to die. Often, self-harm occurs in the form of cutting. Self-harm is not a suicide attempt or an indicator that the person feels suicidal. It’s important to recognize the difference in order to appropriately address the root cause behind self-harm.

Self-harm, particularly cutting, can be something anyone struggling engages in, although it is very common amongst adolescents. Cutting is used as a coping mechanism to help control emotional pain.

At a young age, it is difficult to navigate the intense emotions one is experiencing. Adolescence is difficult for everyone, and adding in family distress or difficulty with school or peers can make emotions overwhelming. Cutting is often a way to deal with severe emotional distress by translating emotional pain into physical pain, which is easier to understand and manage.

Self-harm may start as an impulsive reaction to an emotional crisis or may just come from curiosity. For many, it’s a result of feeling that they cannot discuss their feelings and are supposed to repress negative emotions.

Contrary to common belief, cutting is not a grab for attention. Many people actually have the opposite thought, in that they feel they are “nobody” and that no one cares or will notice. The common thread is the numbing effect it causes, in which they don’t feel the emotional pain as much and just feel the physical pain.

Although self-injury can be an indicator of mental illness, many people who self-harm are just going through a difficult period such as the adolescent struggle and don’t know how to express it. In order to evaluate the situation, it’s important to get to the root emotional distress.


Cutting doesn’t work long-term. It takes more and more to experience the same relief. However, it can be addictive in some ways and similar to drug use in that when difficult emotions arise, it is hard not to go back to self-harm.

Receiving support and treatment is important to healing and ending self-harm, however, the most important element is a willingness from the individual. Once the person is ready to make healthier choices, psychotherapy is the first step to get to the root of the emotion and develop other coping mechanisms that can be used in times of emotional conflict. Therapy can help the person understand what they’re actually feeling, where it’s coming from, and how to deal with those feelings in a healthy way.

It can be a process as people have to learn how to resist cutting when stress or emotional pain comes up, which can be easier said than done. However, empowering people with an understanding environment where emotions can be freely discussed, a better understanding of self, and alternative coping mechanisms will make ending self-harm more than possible.