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Cutting and Self-Harm Factsheet (for Schools)

Reviewed by: Leah J. Orchinik, PhD
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What Teachers Should Know

Cutting is a well-known form of self-injury in which teens and preteens may use a sharp object to purposely mark, cut, or scratch themselves. Most often, they cut themselves on their wrists, forearms, thighs, or belly. But they also might burn, scratch, or hit themselves; bang their head; pull their hair; pinch their skin; pierce their skin with needles or sharp objects; or insert objects under their skin.

These usually aren't suicide attempts, but people who self-injure are more likely to attempt suicide. But even when suicide is not the goal, self-harm can still cause serious injuries.

Cutting and other self-injuries can be a sign of emotional distress. Teens do them for many different reasons:

  • Most struggle with powerful emotions and cutting gives them a sense of relief.
  • Self-harm provides a sense of control over other things teens can't control.
  • It can start as an impulsive behavior, but it becomes harder to stop the more they do it.
  • Some also struggle with other urges, obsessions, or compulsive behaviors.
  • People who self-injure are more likely to have mental health problems, like depression, anxiety, PTSD, or eating disorders.
  • People who cut tend to say they're dissatisfied with themselves and can be very self-critical.

Students may:

  • hide marks on their body and, if the marks are noticed, make excuses for them
  • appear depressed, anxious, or overwhelmed, and get angry or upset if confronted about the self-harm
  • do poorly in school or seem socially isolated
  • abuse drugs and alcohol

What Teachers Can Do

For many teens and preteens, cutting and other types of self-injury are a sign that they are dealing with emotional distress or mental illness. While some teens call attention to their cuts or injuries, others hide them out of shame. Many teens cut or self-injure for a long time before anyone else knows.

If you suspect that your student is cutting or doing other self-harm, talk to a school counselor, school psychologist, school nurse, principal, or designated crisis team. Teens who self-injure should be referred to mental health specialists.

You can help your student by:

  • providing extra time for class and homework assignments
  • being consistent and supportive
  • teaching all students healthy ways to deal with stress
Reviewed by: Leah J. Orchinik, PhD
Date reviewed: June 2022