Self-harm is up sharply among girls -- what's behind it and how to help

Laurel Foster holds her phone in San Francisco
Laurel Foster holds her phone in San Francisco. Foster is among teens involved in Stanford University research testing whether smartphones can be used to help detect depression and potential self-harm.
Haven Daley | AP file

The National Alliance on Mental Illness says it's not uncommon for people to harm themselves on purpose, especially adolescents and young adults. But health care providers are concerned about a significant increase in the behavior over the past decade.

A study from the Centers for Disease Control found the rate of self-harm went relatively unchanged prior to 2009, and then shot up threefold among girls ages 10 to 14 between 2009 and 2015. The trend dovetails with a study out this month that says the suicide rate among girls 10 to 14 is growing faster than the rate for boys of the same age.

It's unclear why self-harm has increased for girls, but some suggest it's related to smartphones and social media; touchscreen mobile phones started becoming ubiquitous after the iPhone launched in 2007. But at its most basic, self-harm is a way that people manage difficult emotions, Dr. Kaz Nelson told MPR News host Tom Crann.

"When we see this, sometimes we can react and say, 'Gosh, why would you do this?' And that's not really a helpful approach," said Nelson, a psychiatrist with the University of Minnesota.

"What you want to do is be very compassionate and empathic, and assume that this is a sign that someone is experiencing something that is truly intolerable and that they're having trouble managing. So using that compassion to say, 'I'm concerned about you. I see that this is serious. I would love for you to get some help and I'm going to walk through this with you. How can we reach out and get help together?'"

To hear more of the conversation, click play above.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Espanol: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

This interview is part of "Call to Mind," MPR's initiative to foster new conversations around mental health.