Non-Suicidal vs. Suicidal Self-Harm

Discover the differences between non-suicidal and suicidal self-harm. Learn to navigate the spectrum and find support.

February 1, 2024

Understanding Self-Harm

Self-harm is a complex and multifaceted behavior that requires careful understanding and attention. This section aims to provide insights into the nature of self-harm and the complexities surrounding it.

What is Self-Harm?

Self-harm refers to deliberate acts of inflicting harm or injury to oneself without the intention of ending one's life. It is important to note that self-harm is not a mental health diagnosis but rather a behavior that can be associated with various underlying emotional, psychological, or social difficulties. Individuals who engage in self-harm often use it as a coping mechanism to relieve emotional distress, gain a sense of control, or communicate their inner pain.

Self-harm can manifest in different forms, including but not limited to cutting, burning, scratching, hitting, or hair pulling. It is crucial to understand that self-harm is not a solution to the underlying issues, and seeking professional help is essential for addressing the root causes and finding healthier coping strategies.

The Complexity of Self-Harm Behaviors

Self-harm behaviors are complex and can vary greatly from person to person. Each individual's experience with self-harm is unique, and the motivations behind the behavior can differ widely. It is vital to approach self-harm without judgment or assumptions and strive to comprehend the underlying emotions and struggles that lead to these behaviors.

Factors that contribute to self-harm can include but are not limited to:

  • Emotional distress: Self-harm can be a response to overwhelming emotions such as sadness, anger, anxiety, or numbness. By engaging in self-harm, individuals may attempt to release or distract themselves from these intense emotions.
  • Coping mechanism: Some individuals use self-harm as a maladaptive coping mechanism to regain a sense of control, alleviate emotional pain, or punish themselves.
  • Communication: For some individuals, self-harm serves as a way to express their inner turmoil or communicate their distress when they struggle to verbalize their emotions.
  • Social influences: Peer pressure, exposure to self-harm behaviors through social media, or a desire to fit in can also contribute to the adoption of self-harm as a coping mechanism.

Understanding the complexities of self-harm can help promote empathy, reduce stigma, and encourage individuals struggling with self-harm to seek appropriate support and intervention. Differentiating between non-suicidal and suicidal self-harm is crucial for providing targeted assistance.

Non-Suicidal Self-Harm

Non-suicidal self-harm refers to deliberate acts of self-injury that are not intended to result in death. Understanding the definition and characteristics of non-suicidal self-harm is crucial for recognizing and addressing these behaviors.

Definition and Characteristics of Non-Suicidal Self-Harm

Non-suicidal self-harm involves the deliberate infliction of physical harm on oneself without the intent to die. It is often used as a coping mechanism to manage emotional pain, stress, or overwhelming feelings. Individuals who engage in non-suicidal self-harm may use various methods to harm themselves, such as cutting, scratching, burning, or hitting.

The characteristics of non-suicidal self-harm may include:

  • Repetitive behaviors: Non-suicidal self-harm is often repetitive, with individuals resorting to self-injury as a way to cope with emotional distress or as a means of expressing their internal struggles.
  • Emotional regulation: Non-suicidal self-harm can serve as a maladaptive strategy to regulate overwhelming emotions. It may provide temporary relief or a sense of control over emotional pain.
  • Absence of suicidal intent: Unlike suicidal self-harm, individuals engaging in non-suicidal self-harm do not have the intention to end their lives. Instead, they seek relief from emotional pain or a means of expressing their distress.
  • Secretive behavior: Non-suicidal self-harm can be a hidden behavior, with individuals often concealing their wounds or scars. They may feel shame, guilt, or fear of judgment, making it challenging to seek help.

Common Forms of Non-Suicidal Self-Harm

Non-suicidal self-harm can manifest in various forms. Some common methods of non-suicidal self-harm include:

It is important to note that non-suicidal self-harm is a complex issue, and individuals engaging in these behaviors may require professional help and support. If you or someone you know is struggling with self-harm, it is crucial to reach out to a mental health professional or a helpline for guidance and assistance.

Suicidal Self-Harm

When discussing self-harm, it's essential to address the distinction between non-suicidal self-harm and suicidal self-harm. While both involve intentional acts of harm, there are important differences in terms of definition, characteristics, and indicators.

Definition and Characteristics of Suicidal Self-Harm

Suicidal self-harm refers to deliberate acts of self-injury or self-inflicted harm with the intention of ending one's life. Individuals engaging in suicidal self-harm often experience intense emotional pain, hopelessness, and a desire to escape their circumstances. This behavior is closely associated with suicidal ideation and a genuine intent to die.

Characteristics of suicidal self-harm may include:

  • More severe and life-threatening methods: Individuals engaging in suicidal self-harm may resort to more extreme and lethal methods, such as overdosing on medication, hanging, or self-inflicted gunshot wounds.
  • Expressions of suicidal thoughts: Those who engage in suicidal self-harm may verbally express their intent to die by discussing suicide or leaving behind suicide notes.
  • History of suicide attempts: Suicidal self-harm often occurs in individuals with a history of previous suicide attempts or suicidal ideation.
  • Co-occurring mental health conditions: Many individuals engaging in suicidal self-harm may have underlying mental health conditions, such as depression, bipolar disorder, or borderline personality disorder.

Signs and Indicators of Suicidal Self-Harm

Identifying signs and indicators of suicidal self-harm is crucial for early intervention and prevention. It's important to understand that individuals may not always openly communicate their intentions, so recognizing potential warning signs is essential. Some common signs and indicators of suicidal self-harm include:

Signs and Indicators

Expressing feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness

Withdrawing from friends, family, and social activities

Giving away prized possessions

Engaging in risky behaviors

Increased substance abuse

Drastic changes in mood or behavior

Talking about death or expressing a desire to die

Making final arrangements or saying goodbye to loved ones

If you or someone you know is exhibiting these signs or expressing suicidal thoughts, it is crucial to seek immediate professional help. Remember, reaching out to mental health professionals or contacting helplines can provide the necessary support and intervention.

Differentiating Non-Suicidal and Suicidal Self-Harm

When examining self-harm behaviors, it is essential to distinguish between non-suicidal self-harm (NSSH) and suicidal self-harm (SSH). While both involve intentional self-inflicted harm, understanding the differences between these two categories is crucial for effective intervention and support.

Intent and Motivation

The primary distinction between NSSH and SSH lies in the intent and underlying motivation behind the self-harm behaviors. Non-suicidal self-harm refers to self-harm actions that are not driven by a desire to end one's life. Individuals who engage in NSSH often use self-harm as a coping mechanism to regulate overwhelming emotions, seek relief from emotional pain, or gain a sense of control. It is important to note that although NSSH is not intended to be lethal, it can still result in unintentional harm or severe consequences.

On the other hand, suicidal self-harm involves self-harm behaviors with the explicit intention of causing fatal harm. Suicidal self-harm is typically associated with an individual's desire to end their life or escape from unbearable emotional distress. The intention behind suicidal self-harm is rooted in a deeper sense of hopelessness and a perceived inability to cope with life's challenges.

Severity and Risk Assessment

Another crucial aspect of differentiating between NSSH and SSH is the severity of the self-harm behaviors and the associated risk assessment. Non-suicidal self-harm is often characterized by less severe self-inflicted injuries that are not immediately life-threatening. These behaviors, such as cutting, scratching, or burning, are typically intended to provide temporary relief or act as a coping mechanism. However, the risk of accidental harm or escalation to more severe self-harm methods should not be ignored.

In contrast, suicidal self-harm poses a significantly higher risk due to the intention to cause lethal harm. Suicidal self-harm behaviors can involve more severe methods, such as overdose, hanging, or self-inflicted gunshot wounds. The risk associated with suicidal self-harm requires immediate attention and intervention from mental health professionals and support systems.

Understanding the differences between NSSH and SSH is crucial for accurately assessing the individual's needs and providing appropriate support and intervention. If you or someone you know is struggling with self-harm, it is essential to seek professional help.

Seeking Help and Support

When it comes to dealing with self-harm, seeking help and support is crucial for individuals who engage in non-suicidal or suicidal self-harm behaviors. There are various options available to provide assistance and guidance during difficult times.

Professional Help and Treatment Options

Reaching out to a mental health professional is an important step in addressing self-harm behaviors. These professionals have the expertise to assess the severity of self-harm and develop a personalized treatment plan. Here are some common professional help and treatment options:

Professional Help and Treatment Options

Psychotherapy (Talk Therapy)

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

Medication Management

Supportive Counseling

Psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), is often effective in helping individuals understand the underlying issues that contribute to self-harm behaviors. These therapies provide coping strategies and teach healthier ways to manage distressing emotions.

Medication management may be considered in cases where an individual has co-occurring mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety, that contribute to self-harm behaviors. It is important to consult with a psychiatrist or medical professional to determine the appropriateness of medication.

Supportive counseling can also be beneficial, providing individuals with a safe space to express their feelings and emotions. Counseling can be done individually or in a group setting, allowing individuals to connect with others who may have similar experiences.

Supportive Resources and Communities

Apart from professional help, there are also supportive resources and communities available for individuals who engage in self-harm or are seeking support. These resources can provide valuable information, guidance, and a sense of community. Here are some examples:

Supportive Resources and Communities

Online Support Groups

Helplines and Crisis Hotlines

Mental Health Websites and Forums

Self-Help Books

Peer Support Programs

Online support groups and forums provide individuals with a platform to connect with others who may have similar experiences. These communities offer a safe and non-judgmental space to share stories, seek advice, and receive support from individuals who understand the challenges faced.

Helplines and crisis hotlines are available 24/7 and provide immediate support to individuals in crisis. These services are staffed with trained professionals who can offer guidance, listen, and provide referrals to local resources when needed.

Mental health websites and forums can provide valuable information on self-harm, mental health conditions, and coping strategies. These resources can help individuals gain a better understanding of their experiences and provide guidance on seeking professional help.

Self-help books can also be beneficial, offering insights, strategies, and personal stories to help individuals navigate the challenges of self-harm. It is important to choose books written by reputable authors and mental health professionals.

Peer support programs connect individuals with others who have experienced self-harm and are in recovery. These programs provide a sense of camaraderie and understanding, as individuals can share their stories, offer support, and inspire hope.

Remember, seeking help and support is a brave and important step towards healing and recovery. If you or someone you know is struggling with self-harm, reach out to a mental health professional or utilize the supportive resources available. You are not alone, and there is help and support available to guide you through this journey.


Self-harm is a serious and complex issue that requires attention, understanding, and support. Whether an individual engages in non-suicidal or suicidal self-harm behaviors, seeking professional help and utilizing supportive resources is essential for recovery and well-being. It's important to recognize the signs and indicators of self-harm, understand the differences between non-suicidal and suicidal self-harm, and know where to turn for help. By breaking down the stigmas around self-harm and providing education and awareness, we can create a safer space for individuals to seek help without fear of judgment or shame. Remember, you are not alone in this journey, and there is hope for healing.