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Warning Signs of Self-Harm and How to Respond

Self-harm means hurting yourself on purpose. Also known as self-injury, self-harm is a symptom of extreme emotional distress. Individuals, especially teens, engage in different types of self-harm that can be hard to identify. Keep reading to learn more about the different types of self-harm, common warning signs, and what you can do if you suspect a friend or loved one is self-harming.

Forms of Self-Harm
Self-harm typically occurs in private and is done in a controlled or ritualistic manner that often leaves a pattern on the skin. Some forms of self-harm include:

  • Cutting
  • Scratching
  • Burning (with lit matches, cigarettes, or heated, sharp objects like knives)
  • Carving words or symbols on the skin
  • Self-hitting, punching, or head banging
  • Piercing the skin with sharp objects
  • Inserting objects under the skin

Warning Signs of Self-Harm
Knowing and being able to recognize the warning signs of self-harm will help you provide immediate support. Warning signs include:

  • Scars, often in patterns
  • Fresh cuts, scratches, bruises, bite marks, or other wounds
  • Excessive rubbing of an area to create a burn
  • Keeping sharp objects on hand
  • Wearing long sleeves or long pants, even in hot weather
  • Frequent reports of accidental injury

What to Do If You Suspect a Friend or Loved One Is Self-Harming
If you’re worried a friend or loved one might be self-harming, ask him/her how he/she is doing and be prepared to listen to the answer, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Here are some ways to help.

  • Your child. Consult your pediatrician or other health care provider who can provide an initial evaluation or a referral to a mental health professional.
  • Pre-teen or teenage friend. Suggest that your friend talk to parents, a teacher, a school counselor, or another trusted adult.
  • An Adult. Gently express your concern and encourage the person to seek mental health treatment.

For more information and resources about self-harm, visit https://www.pennfoundation.org/march-is-self-harm-awareness-month/.


One-in-five individuals harm themselves, often starting in their adolescent years. Self-harm is a sign of emotional distress, but doctors and therapists can help. Reach out for support and resources today.