Students Who Self-Injure

I recently went to a class taught by Marv Penner on students who self-injure.  He taught us out of his book Helping Kids Who Self-Injure.  As this becomes more of a common issue in the lives of students, we as youth ministers need to be above the curve on this one.  So I took some notes and thought I would share them with you.  I would encourage you to get all the information you can on this topic. Click on the title of his book to get more info on what you will learn in this post.  The more you know about it the more comfortable and confident you will be in facing this issue.  I hope this helps.

Self-Injury Facts

  • 1 in 5 young women and 1 in 7 young men were found to have self-injured themselves for the purpose of emotional management. (Princeton/Cornell)
  • The average self-injurer starts at the age 14 and continues with increasing severity into his/her 20’s.

Notes: They are actually finding out that students are starting out as young as middle school.

What is Self-Injury?

  • It’s listed in the The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association as a Borderline Personality Disorder Symptom.
  • Self-harm is a response to a profound and overwhelming emotional pain that cannot be resolved in a more functional way.

What Self-Injury is not!

  • Self-Injury is not a half-hearted attempt at suicide
  • Demon Possession
  • A relationally immature attempt to get attention
  • Body modification taken to the extreme

Notes:  You must understand that it is not an attempt at suicide, but if the cycle continues it could be the result at the end of a fighting battle. The self-injurer is trying to save their life not take it.  We must understand that we join them in the fight for their life.  While there is definitely a spiritual battle going on, self-injury does not automatically equate to Demon Possession.  It’s not just about attention, it’s deeper than that and it needs our full undivided attention.  

Why do people Self-Injury?

  • Escape from depression
  • Easing tension
  • Providing relief from uncontrollable feelings
  • Maintaining a sense of security
  • Obtaining a feeling of euphoria
  • Preventing suicide
  • Expressing emotional pain they feel they cannot bear
  • Communicating to others the extent of their inner-turmoil
  • Communicating a need for support
  • Punishing oneself
  • Obtaining biochemical relief
  • Exerting a sense of control over one’s body

Notes: There are a lot of reasons listed here. The point here is to understand that they are hurting themselves to relieve emotional pain caused by extreme abuse, neglect, abandonment, deadness, betrayal, etc (these are just some of the triggers listed).  A big one is that they feel a false sense of control and security when they self-injure.  Also, they are expressing a cry for help when they self-injure.  They want someone to know their pain.

Some Practical Suggestions When Encountering Students Who Self-Injure

  • Refer them to a trained professional
  • Pray continually
  • Listen well
  • Live a life worthy of trust
  • Be available but never frantic
  • No biblical condemnation
  • We respond relationally by offering affirmation, our presence, acceptance and we speak hope

Notes: Referring them to a trained professional should be your first step.  Then you become a supporter/spiritual coach/prayer partner who genuinely listens and can be trusted.  You set the level of severity by how you respond.  So you never want to seem shocked or frantic by their actions.  The self-injurer is already at their lowest, therefore, using the bible to explain how wrong they are will only add more guilt and shame.  We want to use the bible to build and restore so you must be careful how you use it.

Self-injurers want help and want to be normal.  The worst thing we can do is dismiss them as a trivial attention getter.  The best thing we can do for them is address their self-injuring with intentional concern.  I do believe we are best for the job. Also, I can’t stress enough about the need for prayer, prayer, prayer!

Please leave a comment if you have anything to add or just comments about this post.

Hope this helps


7 thoughts on “Students Who Self-Injure”

  1. Hi AC!,

    Thanks for posting on this topic. More needs to be said for it. Thanks for being a youth pastor focusing on Pastoral Care. Jumping into the deepend. 🙂 I’m adding your blog to the lists of blogs I follow. Look forward to reading more.

    A caution on labeling cutting as a Borderline Personality Disorder. Cutting is a symptom of Borderline Personality Disorder. Borderline Personality Disorder needs many other symptoms for that to be placed. Cutting is also a symptom of anxiety disorder and depression (much more treatable and some even go away just with the hormone stabilization post adolescence). Additionally, labeling teens with a personality disorder is dangerous because they never lose that label. (and if it is that diagnosis, they never lose that disorder). National Institutes on Health List a few other symptoms in how to deal with cutting and not labeling with a disorder.
    There is an unhelpful circularity in that self-harm is considered to be one of the defining features of both borderline and histrionic personality disorder.

    The diagnostic label tends to divert attention from helping the person to overcome their problems and can even lead to the person being denied help (National Institute for Mental Health in England, 2003).

    Some people who self-harm consider the term personality disorder to be offensive and to create a stereotype that can lead to damaging stigmatisation by care workers (Babiker & Arnold, 1997; Pembroke, 1994).

    A good way to think of a personality disorder verses other psych disorders is like baking. A regular psych disorder (depression, anxiety) is like a knife in the cake, once you take the knife out the cake is still a decent cake and can be consumed. Any personality disorder is lifelong. Its like substituting salt for sugar. No matter what you try to do the cake is a salty cake and unfit for consumption. Hence the danger in that label.

    Here’s the page from NIH on Borderline PD.

    I thought your points on care and how a youth pastor can help are spot on though. Really solid. Look forward to hearing more from you. I blog on similar stuff on

  2. Thanks for the love and for adding info about this subject. Yes you are correct thanks for catching that. Symptom should be on the end of that sentence. My motivation for this post is to solely give confidence to leaders in this area. So if they ever have to face self-injurers they will have at least a clue of what’s going on. My prayer is that they will do more of their own research. So that they can be super strategic in prayer and dealing with this issue.

    Thanks again!!

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