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Teenagers hurt themselves to regulate emotions

Nina Bambeni | nina@radioislam.co.za
28 March 2023 | 12:00 PM CAT
2 min read

Photo Credit: WORDCRAFTBYANNISA

Self-harm, a growing concern among teenagers, is deliberately inflicting pain and damage to one’s body using cutting, burning, scratching, and self-poisoning through medication or substances to relieve emotional distress. A 2021 UNICEF report found that more than 65% of South African youth aged 12 and above have had some form of mental health issue but did not seek help. Though most of these teens do not take their mental health seriously, others are concerned with what people would think of them.

Dr Terri Henderson, child psychiatrist and member of the South African Society of Psychiatrists (SASOP), says self-harm is a cry for help and should never be ignored, downplayed as attention-seeking behaviour or a means of ‘acting out’.

Some of the challenges that these teenagers face are depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, ADHD, and substance misuse often lead to self-harm as one of the methods teenagers engage in to cope with their undiagnosed and untreated mental health conditions.

Dr Henderson says research shows that fifty per cent of teens who self-harm will use self-harm repeatedly. She attributes the high rate to depression, ongoing physical, verbal and sexual abuse, continuing negative interpersonal experiences and dysfunctional support systems.

Although parents may feel confused, angry and helpless when they see signs that their child or teen is engaging in self-harm, clues that may lead one to detect that a teen is self-harming include behaviour that is trying to hide scars such as wearing long sleeves and no matter the weather or flinching in pain if their arm is touched. Other signs of mental distress are frequently present such as depression, increasing isolation, withdrawal from activities, friendships, schooling and sports, decreased focus on self-care behaviours such as bathing, changes in sleeping and eating patterns, irritability or markedly erratic moods.

Once self-harm has been identified, and it appears to be minimal to one or two incidents, a short-term invention with a family doctor or psychologist will be adequate. Contact the South African Anxiety and Depression Group at 0800 567 567 to speak to a counsellor if you are worried about your teen.

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