Self Harm vs. Suicidal Behavior | What's the Difference in Teens?

Just because a teen self-harms does not mean they are suicidal.

So what’s the difference between self harm and suicidal behavior in teens!?

I’m going to to tell you in this video:

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It is really scary to find out a teenager you know if self-harming.

That’s because we know the rates for teens who are self-harming AND engaging in suicidal behaviors are rising.

But here’s the thing- while there can be potential for overlap between the two- they aren’t the same thing. 

Let’s start with the basics…

Self-Harm is any type of injury that is self-inflicted.

Most people automatically think of cutting when they hear this, but this can include a variety of self-injurious behavior. I’m not going to go into all the different types, because it can unintentionally influence someone who is curious to try them out- but if you think you may struggle with some type of self-harm, please reach out to a local mental health professional or crisis line and they can help you out.

In the United States, you can text the Crisis Text line 24/7 at 741-741.

Suicidal Behavior is any type of action that someone performs with the intention, or consequence of dying.

This can be a bit confusing because many self-harm behaviors are dangerous with the potential to cause death, even when it is unintended. And some people engage in suicidal behavior not fully realizing the potential permanent consequences of their actions.

In the mental health world, we call these parasuicidal behaviors because the full intent or awareness may not be there, but the impact still exists.

If you or someone you know is considering killing themselves, or engaging in potentially suicidal behavior- please link them up with mental health support.

In the US, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

The reasons teenagers engage in self-harm or suicidal behaviors can be quite varied.

A common misconception is that teens who self-harm or engage in suicidal behavior are doing this for attention and that that’s a negative thing.

First of all, I’m not sure when attention got such a bad rap…

especially since everyone enjoys being noticed and acknowledged by their loved ones.

Now I don’t think that self-harming or suicidal behaviors is a healthy way of doing this, but teens are still learning how to be comfortable expressing intense emotions and asking for help. I prefer to view  these types of self-harming and suicidal behaviors as connection-seeking, rather than attention-seeking, because it keeps the focus on the fact that they are still learning these skills.

With self-harm, it’s usually to relieve intense emotional pain.

This may be due to a compulsion, or a feeling that until they engage in this behavior, they will not experience relief. It could be related to a feeling of “I deserve this” or “it’s my fault” - almost as a punishment for feeling an overwhelming sense of responsibility or guilt.

Teens may engage in suicidal behavior for similar reasons, though it’s usually more tied to a feeling like it’s their only option for change or escape.

They feel stuck in their current circumstances. They may also feel like they are a burden to others so the irrational thought that their loved ones would be better off without them exists.

Teens are known to be reactive, impulsive and have a higher tolerance for risk.

So please take these concerns seriously if you know a teenager who may be self-harming or suicidal.

During the teen years there are so many new emotional, social and physical experiences, that it can feel wildly intense and way beyond uncomfortable.

As a teenager, you are in a period of life where you are trying to navigate being your own person AND still connecting and relying on others.


It can really tough because while you’re going through this, you’re also surrounded by a bunch of other teens who are going through this, too!

And here’s the thing, most teenagers rely on other teens for support.

Which can be really tough and risky because again- you’re all figuring this out at a time when your life experiences and rational, logical parts of your brains are still forming.

As a teenager, you’re not expected to know all things (and spoiler alert, neither or adults).

The benefit of reaching out to a safe, responsible adult can be so helpful because they tend to be aware of more resources that you as a teeanger may not even know exists. Someone like a therapist, a school social worker, or a parent may have ways they can help that go beyond a teenager’s limited life experience. Use us- please! And if they don’t know, they often know someone who DOES know.

One of the most adult things a teenager can learn is that we can’t do it all alone and that asking for help is often the best thing you can do.

If you’re ready to start seeing a therapist, make sure you reach out to someone local to you. If you happen to live in the Woodbridge, CT area, we’d love to connect with you here:


If you are concerned that you, or someone you know, may be considering killing themselves, please connect them with help.



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Mallory Grimste, LCSW - Teen Therapist

Mental Health Counseling for Anxious Tweens, Teens, and Young Adults | Woodbridge, CT