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Why teens self-harm and how you can help them stop

Why teens self-harm and what you can do to help
WATCH: As a parent, it's difficult to see your child hurt - now imagine the pain of child deliberately hurting themselves. An Alberta psychologist warns self harm is on the rise. Laurel Gregory explains what you can do about it.

WARNING: This article includes subject matter that may be disturbing to some.

Desperation, hopelessness, being overwhelmed — the feelings started creeping in when Cassandra Waldbauer turned 12 years old.

She couldn’t pin down what was happening, nor could she find a lighthouse to help her navigate the unfamiliar darkness. She did discover a sensation that could ease the pain, albeit temporarily.

“I remember it very clearly. It was just a very small cut but it was a release for me.”

“It felt wrong. I knew it was wrong and I knew it was harming me but it was kind of nice,” Waldbauer says. “After I had cut myself or burned myself then I felt really numb and calm for a few hours.

“That was really nice compared to the chaos that I felt all the time.”

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Over the next two years, Waldbauer used razor blades, erasers and lighters to mark her body. She kept it a secret but eventually opened up to her parents during an argument.

“I needed to just say something because I knew I was going down a path I wouldn’t be able to come back from and it had gotten to the point where it was so severe and so often that I knew things needed to change for me then.”

With 300 scars covering her arm and leg, Waldbauer began therapy the following week and was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety and social anxiety.

READ MORE: Teens who visit ER for self-harm more likely to come back to hospital, study finds

According to the government of Alberta, self-harm often starts in pre-teens and teens (both boys and girls) and ranges from picking and scratching to wearing tight clothing or eating overly spicy food.

Tattoo artist offers free cover up for self-harm scars
Tattoo artist offers free cover up for self-harm scars

Mental health educator and counsellor Ariel Haubrich says children and teens are choosing self-harm as a way to cope with “big emotions,” mental health challenges and mental illness.

“What we are hearing about from kids is that if they experience the physical pain – and they may not be able to articulate this but – their brain does release those endorphins, those painkillers, and naturally tries to protect them from that. So there is a relief from a biological perspective.”

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READ MORE: Instagram bans ‘graphic’ self-harm images after teenager’s suicide

Haubrich says for some teens self-harm can also be symbolic, with the scars representing healing from an emotional experience or trauma.

If a parent suspects their child is harming themselves, Haubrich explains it’s best to approach the subject gently so the child feels comfortable talking about it.

“The number one thing we don’t want to do is minimize it or say it’s not that big a deal, be judgmental or angry, or think that they’re trying to manipulate us.”

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“But instead coming from a place of support and curiosity, opening up conversation about what might be going on for them and at the same time engaging them in other strategies to manage some of those big feelings or things that are going on,” Haubrich said. “Teaching them some other skills and some other ways to handle some of this stuff.”

Now 22 years old, Waldbauer still manages mental health issues, but has found healthy strategies to cope, such as walking her dogs or spending time with friends. If she could go back in time, she would tell her 12-year-old self to reach out sooner.

That’s her message to the youth she speaks to now as a member of the CASA Youth Council.

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“When you’re just so confused and so lost and overwhelmed, it’s really easy to just feel isolated.

“But it’s really, really important… we need to reach out for help, even if it’s a small thought or a small feeling. Those things can grow so quickly.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

If you are in need of support, you can call the Health Link at 811 or the Mental Health Help Line at 1-877-303-2642, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.