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Substance Abuse and Self-Harm

by Meghan Heffner, Youth Service Bureau

Self-harm and substance abuse have a very complex relationship. Some would argue that substance use is a form of self-harm, and self-harm can become an addiction. According to Recovery Unplugged, self-harm can be defined as “purposeful and non-lethal injury to self.” This can include a number of behaviors like cutting, burning, picking, hitting, or inserting objects into the skin. Self-harm behaviors are ways to release emotions, and individuals who practice self-harm usually have a history of emotional, sexual, or physical abuse, neglect, or trauma. After incidents of self-harm, individuals typically experience emotional and mental relief quickly followed by shame or guilt; creating a vicious cycle of harmful emotions and behaviors.

We know that self-harm is more common in teenagers. According to statistics, approximately 15-30 percent of adolescents in the United States engage in some form of self-injury. Studies have shown that approximately nine percent of teenagers who engage in self-harming behaviors also abuse drugs and alcohol. When two or more mental health or substance abuse disorders occur simultaneously it is known as co-occurring disorders. While the relationship between substance use and self-harm is thought to be a two-way street, we know for certain that substance use can lead to self-harming behaviors. Drugs and alcohol are known to slow reaction times, impair judgment, increase impulsivity and disrupt the connections in nerve endings potentially resulting in worsening injuries.

Warning signs associated with self-harm behavior in teens:

  • Noticeable wounds that aren’t easily explained
  • Wearing long-sleeved clothing at inappropriate times in an attempt to hide wounds
  • Avoidance of social situations
  • Isolation or a lot of time locked in a room or bathroom
  • Impulsivity
  • Feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness
  • Personal identity issues
  • Tools such as razors, bits of glass, lighters, knives, or scissors in places they don’t belong and usually in easily accessible places

Warning signs of substance abuse in teens:

  • Unexplained, confusing change in personality or attitude.
  • Sudden mood changes, irritability, and angry outbursts
  • Periods of unusual hyperactivity or agitation.
  • Lack of motivation; inability to focus, appears lethargic or “spaced out.”
  • Appears fearful, withdrawn, anxious, or paranoid, with no apparent reason.

Individuals need to substitute other healthy behaviors that can be equally soothing and provide a similar emotional release to self-harming experiences. Similar to substance abuse, the underlying reason why there is an addiction needs to be addressed in order for the unhealthy compulsive behavior to stop. Recognizing past trauma, assault, extremely high stressors, mental health disorders, substance abuse or any other triggers is the first step towards healing.

Please reach out to the Youth Service Bureau if you or a loved one is caught up in substance use or self-harming behaviors. You can always refer a youth or self-refer to the Chemical Health Specialist at the Wellness Center.

Self-harm and substance abuse

Teenage addiction and self-harm: Co-occurring disorders

How are substance abuse and self-harm related


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Self-harm and substance abuse have a very complex relationship. Learn more about the warning signs in teens and what you can do to help.

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