Self-harm, also called self-injury or self-mutilation, occurs when an individual purposely injures their own body in a way that does not involve suicidal intent. Strong emotional reactions to deliberate self-harm are common, and some people may find it difficult to read the following information.
Research has shown that 1–4% of adults and 15% of adolescents in the United States have engaged in self-mutilation. However, the actual figure is probably higher, as many individuals do not report self-injury behaviors due to fear or shame. Research suggests that sexual minorities and high school students who are bullied are more likely to self-injure.
Types of Self-Harm
There are many different forms of self-injury, but the most common types of self-harm include:
- Cutting with a razor blade or other sharp object
- Burning or scratching body parts
- Punching or hitting to injure yourself
- Taking too many pills or self-poisoning
- Intentionally preventing injuries from healing
If you’re worried that a loved one is self-harming, look out for common signs of self-harm:
- Unexplained injuries or scars from cuts, bruises, or burns
- Bloodstains on clothing, bedding, or towels, or blood-soaked tissues
- Unusual presence of sharp objects or cutting tools, such as razors and knives
- Frequent “accidents” or excuses, including clumsiness, to explain injuries
- Long sleeves and long pants, even in hot weather, to hide injuries
- Self-isolation for long periods
Why do people self-harm?
Although the reasons for self-mutilation vary, it generally occurs when an individual experiences emotional pain beyond that which they can psychologically cope with, and for which they do not have healthier coping mechanisms. Individuals self-injure for a wide range of reasons, including:
- To deal with feelings like sadness, emptiness, numbness, guilt, and rage
- To express emotions that can’t be put into words or to release intense emotional pain and tension
- To feel in control of your life, relieve guilt, or punish yourself
- To distance yourself from acute emotional pain or stressful situations
- To feel physical pain instead of emotional numbness
Acts of self-harm can also include less obvious ways of self-mutilation, including putting yourself in danger, binge drinking, or having unsafe sex. Types of situations that contribute to self-mutilation include:
- Feelings of depression or a loss of control
- Self-esteem issues
- Relationship problems or issues with family members
- Issues at school or work
- Abuse, such as sexual assault
- Feelings of isolation, shame, or hopelessness
While physical pain may cause temporary relief of intense feelings, it poses a serious risk and danger to one’s safety. With the right treatment plan, it is possible to learn healthier coping mechanisms.
Consequences of Self-Harm
The temporary relief from engaging in self-injury behaviors is fleeting and creates more problems than it solves. The consequences of self-harm include:
- Short-term relief: Other feelings like shame and guilt quickly follow self-injury. Self-harm makes it challenging to learn healthy coping mechanisms.
- Isolation: Self-harm can cause feelings of shame, and many individuals who engage in acts of self-harm believe no one else would understand. Hiding who you are and the depth of your emotional pain is a heavy burden, and secrecy can affect your relationships with friends and family members.
- Serious injuries: Many cutters end up with infected wounds or misjudge the depth of cuts, leading to severe injuries, scars, and potential hospital visits.
- Repetition: Acts of self-harm can become addictive. Self-harm may start as an impulse, but the sensation of cutting or self-harming can quickly become addictive.
- More significant risks: Individuals who fail to learn healthy coping mechanisms face a higher risk of major depression, substance abuse, and suicide attempts.
What conditions are related to self-harm?
Deliberate self-harm is not a diagnosable mental health condition listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It is a behavior linked to a broad range of conditions, including:
- Anxiety disorders
- Trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Borderline personality disorder and related personality disorders
- Substance abuse
- Eating disorders
- Schizophrenia and related psychotic disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Developmental disabilities, such as mental retardation and autism
Studies suggest that individuals with mental disorders or developmental disabilities face higher rates of self-harm.
Self-Harm Treatment Options
Please seek professional help if you are engaging in self-injury behaviors. Compassionate and nonjudgemental and therapists and other professionals can be of help. A wide variety of resources are available to help individuals recover from deliberate self-harm, such as:
- Therapy: If you’re struggling to cope with emotional pain, the first step is to seek qualified professional help. Working with a psychologist who specializes in suicidal behavior and deliberate self-harm can help you understand your triggers and find healthy coping mechanisms. Common types of therapy for individuals who self-harm include family therapy, couples counseling, psychodynamic psychotherapy, and cognitive-behavioral therapy.
- Educational resources: It can help to read about the experiences of other young adults who have struggled with self-harm and recovery, such as those on the Self-Injury Outreach and Support website.
- Social support: Avoid isolating yourself if you’re struggling with emotional pain. If you feel like committing an act of self-harm, reach out to a friend, family member, or helpline, or consider joining a support group in your area.
- Hotlines: If you’re having thoughts of suicide or need immediate support, contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. If you’re struggling to cope with the emotional pain of sexual trauma, the National Sexual Assault Hotline can provide support at 1-800-656-4673.
What should you look for in a therapist?
To stop engaging in acts of self-harm, find an experienced therapist who specializes in self-harm and suicidal behaviors.
If you’re seeking treatment for self-harm, consider reaching out to a psychologist through WithTherapy. WithTherapy connects each patient to a personalized shortlist of psychologists, counselors, and social workers and uses science and research to match personal preferences. Our goal is to connect you with a therapist you feel comfortable with, regardless of your preferences and requirements. One of the qualified therapists on WithTherapy will help you find healthy coping mechanisms and problem-solving strategies for everyday life.