Health Agency Urges Parents, Caregivers to be Aware of Signs of Self-Harm After School Breaks

Data show increases in self-harm coincide with returning to school in September and January

As students begin the spring semester, the Department of Health Services (DHS) encourages parents and caregivers to be aware of Wisconsin Emergency Department data from the National Syndromic Surveillance Program that shows young people experience large increases in self-harm injuries at certain times of the year, including when school resumes after the winter holidays.

Self-harming increased among youth by nearly 40% in September 2022 and January 2023 compared to each of the preceding months. While September 2023 showed a smaller spike in self-harming (14% increase from August 2023), it still represents a significant concern. Self-harm refers to intentional actions to hurt oneself. Examples include cutting, hitting, poisoning, or burning. Self-harm may be done to express or lessen emotional pain. While someone who self-harms may not have the intention of suicide, they may be at greater risk of a suicide attempt or dying by suicide if they do not receive help.

"The start and return of school can be stressful for young people and families," said Paula Tran, State Health Officer and administrator of the DHS Division of Public Health. "Parents, guardians, teachers, mentors, and others can support the young people in their life by knowing the signs of self-harm, talking openly about the struggles youth are facing, and listening to what young people have to say without judgement."

Signs that a young person may be self-harming include:

  • Increased secrecy.
  • Emotional withdrawal or changes in mood and behavior.
  • Reduced time with peers or family members.
  • Unexplained cuts, burns, or bruises; these typically occur on the arms, legs, and stomach.
  • Finding razors, sharps, knives, or other items that may be used to self-injure.
  • Keeping arms and legs covered even when it is inconvenient to do so.
Parents or guardians and others looking to help a young person who is self-harming can take the following actions:

  • Do not ignore the problem or treat it like a passing fad.
  • Listen to them without judgement. Do not try to problem solve or put things in a more positive light for them, but instead focus on confirming what you are hearing them tell you.
  • Recognize when the help of a professional is needed. You can find information on the signs of a mental health crisis, including situations that require an immediate call for professional help on the Crisis Services: Identifying a Crisis page.

"Have regular check-ins with your child. Listen nonjudgmentally. Discuss healthy coping skills to manage academic and social stress. Encourage healthy habits - physical activity, adequate sleep, nutritious foods - all of which help to build resilience," said Office of Children's Mental Health Director Linda Hall. "95% of kids trust their parents to provide them with the right information and when it comes to mental health, they are ready to talk."

While someone who self-harms may or may not have the intention to die by suicide, it may, however, put a person at greater risk for repeated self-harm, suicide attempt, or death by suicide.

"People who self-harm can and do recover," said State Health Officer Tran. "Parents, guardians, and others are crucial support systems for young people. Talking openly with and truly listening to a young person who is self-harming and working with them to get them connected to the resources that meet their needs are important ways to support their mental health and well-being."

Self-harm reduction among adolescents 10-19 is a key focus area of DHS suicide prevention efforts funded through a grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Other grant activities include promoting peer leadership programs designed to increase well-being, help-seeking, resiliency, healthy coping, and belonging in youth; and educating health care providers to use caring contacts for follow up and to support patients released from care for self-harm or suicide attempts.

More information about self-harm and strategies to build resilience can be found at dhs.wisconsin.gov/injury-prevention/self-harm.htm. The Office of Children's Mental Health recently held a video briefing regarding their annual report, which details concerning trends and shares actions we can all take to improve young people's well-being.

The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline provides free and confidential support for anyone experiencing a suicidal, mental health, and/or substance use crisis. People of all ages who need help for themselves or a loved one can call, text, or chat 24/7 to be connected with a trained counselor.