Self-injury means that you hurt yourself on purpose, but you don’t intend to die as a result. It isn’t a mental illness—and in many cases, it isn’t a sign that someone has a mental illness. Instead, self-harm is usually a way to deal with difficult feelings or show distress.
People go to great lengths to protect themselves from pain and injury. But some people hurt themselves on purpose to help them deal with bad feelings or thoughts. This is called self-harm. People who self-harm don’t do it to end their life—instead, self-harm may be the best way they know to survive.
My journey to better understanding self-injury in young people began after I completed my residency in psychiatry in the early 90s. I became the director of a new partial-hospitalization program for adolescents at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO). By the late 90s, nearly 40% of the program’s youth were presenting with nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI).
It is important that people in a position to recognize NSSI and provide help—including health professionals, school officials and parents—have an accurate understanding of the behaviour. Nonsuicidal self-injury is often misunderstood and even stigmatized. This article provides clear, accurate, evidence-based information about NSSI and also dispels some common misconceptions.