Non-Suicidal vs. Suicidal Self-Harm

By Gaan Akers, LPC, NCC | November 22, 2021

Differentiating the characteristics of non-suicidal and suicidal self-harm is crucial when you are concerned about a loved one. These behaviors represent significant health risks for adolescents. Parents and guardians should research the differences and learn methods to help their young children or teens who demonstrate these behaviors.

Both behaviors cause physical harm to a person’s body, but what makes each act different and more dangerous than the other? Understanding the risks and differences of non-suicidal versus suicidal self-harm will help guide you to the best methods and resources for getting help for your loved one.

Learn more about these behaviors and where you can seek help.

Table of Contents

What Is Non-Suicidal Self-Harm?

Non-suicidal self-harm is a behavior some people express when attempting to regulate their negative emotions or pain. These activities may include cutting, burning, scratching, head-banging, punching walls and other methods of physically hurting themselves. The actions that constitute non-suicidal self-harm are deliberate and intended to control emotional pain or negative feelings.

Your teen may begin to adopt self-harming behaviors when specific emotions are challenging to put into words, or they are craving a sense of control and release. Self-harm might also be an attempt to turn their emotional pain into a physical sensation or an escape from the lingering adverse effects of trauma.

When people exhibiting non-suicidal self-injury behavior do not get help, the cycle of inflicting physical harm can worsen as the relief they feel from these actions diminishes.

What Is Suicidal Behavior?

Suicidal behavior describes planning, imagining or acting on suicidal thoughts or urges. The term encompasses any act someone can take to end their life.

Mental illness and trauma are significant contributors to suicidal behaviors, which can occur in people with one or more of these disorders or experiences:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Alcohol or drug use
  • History of emotional, physical or sexual trauma/abuse
  • Borderline personality disorder

Parents and guardians must be aware of signs of suicidal behaviors in their teens or children, because early intervention can be a life-or-death matter. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for teens and young adults ages 15 to 29.

What Are the Differences Between Non-Suicidal and Suicidal Behavior?

The differences in non-suicidal self-injury and suicide attempts in adolescents include the following.

  • Intent behind actions: The most distinctive aspect between non-suicidal self-harm and suicidal behavior is the goal behind the actions. The intention behind non-suicidal self-harm is likely to feel relief from negative emotions or pain. The purpose of suicide is to end feelings or life.
  • Amount of damage: Non-suicidal self-injury typically causes superficial damage to the body, while suicidal actions are more dangerous or lethal injuries that require treatment.
  • Self-harm method: The methods of self-harm chosen for non-suicidal attempts are often more surface-level injuries compared to suicidal attempts, which can be lethal or cause more damage to the body.
  • Frequency of actions: Non-suicidal self-injury actions are typically more frequent to attempt to manage emotions.
  • Cognitive constriction: The presence of cognitive constriction, or thinking in “all or nothing” terms, is common for individuals experiencing suicidal thoughts. This way of thinking leads to individuals seeing life as all good or all bad.
  • Psychological pain: People who engages in self-injury uses the behavior to manage the psychological pain. Suicidal thoughts are gestures can also be ways of managing psychological pain, however, the person may find the pain to be no longer manageable.
  • Aftermath: After non-suicidal self-injury, many individuals feel a brief sense of relief. The feeling or outcome of a suicide attempt is the opposite.

Common Risk Factors Between Non-Suicidal Self-Harm and Suicidal Behavior

Even with all the differences non-suicidal self-harm and suicidal behaviors have, they share numerous risk factors that are essential to understand. Some of these common risk factors include:

  • Having a history of drug or alcohol abuse.
  • Experiencing high emotional sensitivity.
  • Showing extreme emotion or a lack of emotion.
  • Having a history of abuse, severe stress or trauma.
  • Experiencing feelings of isolation.
  • Continually suppressing feelings and emotions.
  • Lacking coping methods for handling strong emotions or feelings.
  • Presence of anxiety or depression.

Can Self-Harm Lead to Suicidal Behavior?

While self-harm and suicidal behavior have varying characteristics and intent behind the actions, remember that individuals who self-harm can still be at risk for suicide. While some suggest that people expressing non-suicidal self-harm behaviors are completing these actions to prevent suicidal ideation or activity, many note that the two behaviors correlate in various ways.

Some methods of self-injury have a higher risk of leading to suicidal actions. Self-injury methods with these characteristics link with an increased likelihood of leading to suicidal behavior:

  • High number of self-injury methods
  • Duration of self-injury actions
  • Losing physical pain during self-injury actions
  • Cutting
  • Causing severe bodily damage
  • Concealing self-injury actions
  • Developing strong intentions to end life

Self-Harm and Suicidal Behavior in Adolescents

Self-Harm and Suicidal Behavior in Adolescents

Self-harm behavior and suicidal thoughts and attempts continue to be a severe health risk for adolescents. Adolescents may turn to self-injury when they need to express their feelings, navigate thorny situations or don’t have the tools to handle their emotions, mental illness or trauma.

As a parent or guardian of a teenager exhibiting self-harm behavior, it’s hard to know your child is hurting. Naturally, you want to do anything you can to help them feel better. Since suicide is one of the leading causes of death in adolescents, parents and guardians must be aware of the signs, risk factors and treatment options available for their children.

Treating Self-Harm and Suicidal Behavior

It’s essential to get help for your child or teenager when they are exhibiting behaviors of non-suicidal self-injury or suicidal behaviors. Don’t try to fix the problem by yourself or assume it will get better on its own. You should seek treatment options immediately when you determine your child is harming themselves or having suicidal thoughts or actions.

Some signs of self-injury can include:

  • Having visible scars on arms, legs or stomach.
  • Wearing long sleeves or pants, even when it’s hot.
  • Removing themselves from activities they enjoy.
  • Showing signs of depression or anxiety.
  • Dismissing wounds or scars as accidents.

These signs and many more are ones to look out for if you suspect your child is self-harming.

Find a trusted treatment facility that can provide the care and attention your child deserves if they’re experiencing self-harm or suicidal behaviors in adolescence.

Contact Us to Learn How to Care for Your Adolescent's Needs

Contact Us to Learn How to Care for Your Adolescent’s Needs

Find quality care and treatment options for adolescents at Hillside. Choosing the right treatment center for your child is essential, and Hillside is here to offer our expertise and professionalism to help eliminate your child or teen’s harmful behavior. Contact us today to learn more about our treatment options.


  • Hillside Clinical Education & Referral Relations Manager - Gaan has been working with children, adolescents, and families for over 10 years in various settings. In her current role, she provides education and training for mental health professionals, parents, and the community. She lives in Atlanta with her husband. In her free time, she enjoys reading, hiking, climbing, and cooking. She is a donut aficionado and a national park enthusiast!

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