The importance of adolescent-focused therapy for teen self-harm


Self harm — also known as non-suicidal self-injury — is surprisingly common. Researchers estimate that the lifetime prevalence of self-harm is anywhere between 13 to 23 percent. This means that out of the 318.8 million people in the United States, between 41.4 and 73.3 million people have struggled with self-harm at some point in their lives.

Unfortunately, research also indicates that self-harm behavior typically begins during the younger teenage years. Adolescents, unaware of how to acquire help, might hide their wounds or lie to authority figures for fear of being punished. Clinicians — many of whom have been trained to treat adult patients — might not understand how to approach or help a teenager who self-harms.

What is self-harm?

Self-harm is defined as socially unacceptable, self-inflicted injury to one’s body without the intent to die. Common forms of self-harm include cutting, hitting, scratching, burning and picking at skin or wounds. Individuals may self-harm to distract themselves from mental anguish, to punish themselves for perceived ills or for any other number of reasons.

Although acts of self-harm are distinct from acts of suicide, adolescents who self-harm are at an increased risk for suicide and suicide attempts, according to researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Teenagers who self-harm are also at an increased risk of developing an infection (due to open wounds) or accidentally causing a severe — or even deadly — injury. For these reasons, adolescents who self-harm frequently require psychiatric care.

The importance of treatment geared toward adolescents

Adolescents who struggle with self-harm benefit tremendously from intervention geared toward teenagers. Unfortunately, when adolescents experience a psychiatric emergency, they’re typically taken to either a general medical emergency room or an adult psychiatric emergency department. Adolescents in emergency wards dominated by adults might feel frightened or threatened. Even worse, many clinicians who work in emergency departments are not trained to treat pediatric patients.

Clinicians who are trained in pediatric psychiatry will understand how to evaluate an adolescent’s risk for future suicidal behavior, how to recognize the unique risks (and benefits) associated with prescribing psychiatric medication to teenagers, and how to properly interact with the adolescent’s parents and guidance counselor to determine the full nature of the issues.

Since self-harm may lead to future instances of suicidal behavior — and can be dangerous in its own right — it is essential that adolescents who self-harm receive help from a clinician trained in pediatric psychiatry as soon as possible. Treatments for self-harm include group therapy, art therapy and medication. Often, self-harm behavior is the result of an underlying mental disorder such as depression, anxiety or ADHD. By treating this underlying disorder, clinicians may be able to curb the adolescent’s self-harming behavior.

White River Academy is a therapeutic boarding school designed to treat adolescent boys who struggle with substance abuse, mental illness and other behavioral disorders. From the moment you contact us, we work with you to ensure that we know what your teen needs and can provide a solution. All students who attend White River Academy are provided with therapists, psychiatrists and certified teachers who have been specially trained to help adolescents regain control of their lives. For more information, please contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Courtney Lopresti, M.S., uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her Master’s in Neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis.

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