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Self-Harm

Each year, over 3,000 Wisconsinites are hospitalized with a self-harm injury and an additional 3,300 are treated and released from an emergency department with a self-harm injury. This page provides information on what self-harm is, who self-harms the most in Wisconsin, and what people can do to help someone who is self-harming.

Who can I call for help right now?

If you or someone you know is experiencing a suicidal, mental health, and/or substance use crisis, the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline provides 24/7 connection to confidential support with a trained counselor. Call or text 988 or chat via 988lifeline.org. Other options include:

National Parent Helpline
Get emotional support from a trained advocate.
855-427-2736

Crisis Text Line
Text HOPELINE to 741741.

Veterans Crisis Line
988 (press 1)

Teen Line
Support for teens experiencing a mental health challenge.
Text TEEN to 839863.

Your Life, Your Voice
Connect with a counselor.
800-448-3000

Farmer Wellness Helpline
888-901-2558

Trevor Project
Support to end suicide among LGBTQ young people.
866-488-7386

Boys Town National Hotline
Connect with a counselor.
Text VOICE to 20121.

County Crisis Lines
Use this directory.

If you are experiencing a life-threatening emergency, call 911.

What is self-harm?

Self-harm refers to intentional actions taken to hurt oneself. Self-harm that results in injury may be done to express or lessen emotional pain. Some examples include cutting, poisoning, hitting, or burning oneself. There may not always be visible injuries on someone who self-harms. Someone who self-harms may or may not have the intention to die by suicide. Self-harm may, however, put a person at greater risk for repeated self-harm, suicide attempt, or death by suicide.

Self-harm is serious, but it does not have to be a lifelong challenge. People can and do get better.

Who is self-harming in Wisconsin?

Reflective teen standing next to a wall

View the Wisconsin self-harm data dashboard for more information on self-harm in the state.

How is Wisconsin addressing self-harm?

The Department of Health Services (DHS) is committed to reducing self-harm injuries among Wisconsin adolescents ages 10 to 19 by 2027. Current efforts include:

  • Promoting programs like Sources of Strength, a peer leadership approach designed to increase well-being, help-seeking, resiliency, healthy coping, and belonging in youth.
  • Educating health care providers to use caring contacts for follow up and to support patients released from care for self-harm or suicide attempts.
  • Connecting people with resources to support their well-being and prevent re-attempts.

Both American Indian/Alaska Native and Black Wisconsinites have higher rates of self-harm than white residents. Stress from racism likely increases self-harm. Unfair systems can contribute to this behavior, and this is taken into consideration when planning public health work in our communities and making sure that access to services is fair for all.

Self-harm prevention efforts are funded by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This work also includes building strong partnerships across education, health care, non-profit, and community organizations and engaging with community organizations to increase and expand suicide and self-harm prevention efforts.

What are the warning signs of self-harm?

There are several signs that a young person may be self-harming. Signs that a young person may be self-harming include:

  • Increased secrecy.
  • Changes in mood and behavior/emotional withdrawal.
  • 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.
  • Reduced time with peers and family members. They may spend much more time alone.
  • Wearing clothing that doesn’t quite match the weather. Since many individuals will self-injure on their arms and legs, these body parts may be covered up – even if it is inconvenient to do so. Wide band leather bracelets are also used for young people to cover up cuts and scratches on the wrist.

How can we help kids who self-harm?

Two people talking inside

Parents of teens can also find communications tips in this article from the Child Mind Institute, "Tips for Communicating with Your Teen."

Two teens talking outdoors

Talking with a friend about their self-harming can be difficult, but it is also important.

  • Choose a time and place to talk with your friend where you both feel comfortable and can be calm.
  • Without judging them, let your friend know that you're worried for them.
  • Center the conversation around how your friend is feeling, rather than on the self-harm itself.
  • Do not promise to keep the self-harm a secret. Make it clear you care about them, and that includes getting them the help they need. They may get mad at you for telling a trusted adult about their self-harming, but in time, they will likely come to understand that you put their health and safety first.
  • Keep in mind that self-harm is not about getting attention or being "dramatic." Take the self-harm seriously and do not dismiss it or treat your friend as if they are acting manipulative or attention seeking.
  • If your friend is open to receiving help, talk with them about who they may want to seek that help from. Options could include a parent, a mental health care worker, a close family member, a teacher, a coach, a guidance counselor, or a nurse.

If your friend is not ready for a conversation about their self-harm, let them know you are ready to listen when they are ready to talk.

Kids walking into school wearing backpacks

Educators can play a role in helping students who self-harm.

  • Talk to the student in a caring, non-judgmental way. Keep the conversation calm and do not threaten them with punishment.
  • Let the student know that they have people who care about them. Share that they are not alone and that other youth also self-harm.
  • Listen to the student and do not try to problem-solve for them. Use the same language for self-harming that they are using in the conversation ("cutting," "self-harm," etc.).
  • Do not talk about their self-harming with their friends and classmates.
  • Do not promise to keep their self-harm a secret as you may be required to break confidentiality based on your school's policies.

How can we help kids build resilience to avoid self-harming behaviors?

Back view of friends with arms around each other at a fair
  • Consistently check-in with the kids in your life about how they’re feeling and managing stress.
  • Discuss healthy coping skills to manage academic and social stress and teach them how to build their own resilience. The Wisconsin Office of Children's Mental Health and Resilient Wisconsin have helpful mental health tools and tips as well as peer support resources.
  • Remember that behavior is a form of communication, including self-harm. A way to start conversations is to ask if they know of anyone who has self-harmed.
    • You can also ask them if they've used the SPEAK UP, SPEAK OUT website, where they can send in a confidential tip about a friend who is self-harming to get that person some help.
  • Families can also take a break from electronics. You can learn more about digital detoxing in this article from Psychology Today, "Teens and Technology: A Guide to Digital 'Detoxing." Here are a few ideas to also consider:
    • A monthly digital-free day: Try going the first Saturday of the month without screens or making the last Sunday of the month a quiet family day. Commit to spending quality time together without using electronics for one day every month.
    • An electronics-free weekend: Consider making a plan to unplug a few weekends each year, or on major holidays (like starting the new year with a digital detox).
    • A week-long break from electronics: A camping trip or spending time at a cabin could get everyone away from the electronics. Stepping away from technology could renew everyone’s appreciation for simple activities, like board games or playing catch.
    • Limiting phones at school: Some schools have found success in reduced bullying when cell phones are not allowed during the school day.

Additional information on self-harm and ways we can help those who self-harm is available from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and on the Self-Injury Outreach and Support website.

Last revised February 21, 2024