What is Self-Mutilation?
Self-mutilation, also called self-harm or self-injury, is when someone deliberately and repeatedly harms their own body. While the acts of self-mutilation are intentional, many individuals who engage in self-harm do not have suicidal intent or motives.
Despite its lack of official diagnosis in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), nonsuicidal self-injury reflects severe mental illness. In fact, research has demonstrated an increased risk of suicide among adolescents and young adults with NSSI, although NSSI can affect any age group. Furthermore, nonsuicidal self-injury can result in infections and disfigurement.
Whether you’ve been self-harming for a while or you believe that your loved one is injuring themselves, help is available. Professional mental health care is the first step toward living a more fulfilling life.
Types of Self-Mutilation
The most common forms of self-injury include:
- Skin cutting with needles, razors, or other sharp objects
- Headbanging or hitting
- Scratching to the point of drawing blood
- Punching oneself or objects
- Infecting oneself
- Inserting sharp objects into body openings
- Breaking bones purposefully
- Genital self-mutilation
In many cases, individuals who engage in nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI) induce physical pain in more than one way.
Signs and Symptoms of Self-Mutilation
If you believe that someone you love is engaging in self-mutilation, it’s essential to seek professional help immediately. Some symptoms and warning signs that someone may be injuring themselves include:
- Low self-esteem
- Difficulty handling complicated feelings and emotional pain
- Poor functioning at work, school, or home
- Unexplained, frequent injuries, including cuts and burns
People who self-injure often attempt to conceal their injuries, including scars, bruises, and scabs with clothing. As a result, you may notice cutters and other self-injuring individuals wearing incongruous clothing like long sleeves in hot weather. If discovered, mutilators may make excuses for how an injury happened (e.g., “I fell”).
Treatment Options for Self-Mutilation
Treatment for self-mutilation may include outpatient therapy, partial inpatient (6–12 hours a day), and inpatient hospitalization. When self-injurious behaviors interfere with daily life and threaten one’s health or life, a specialized inpatient hospital program with experienced clinicians is recommended.
Treatment for self-mutilation often includes:
- Therapy. According to a case report, therapy can help self-injuring individuals learn healthy coping mechanisms to deal with emotional numbness, navigate emotional pain, and practice emotional regulation. Therapy is also an effective treatment for co-occurring mental illnesses, including borderline personality disorder, substance use disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and anorexia nervosa.
- Medication. Medication can help treat depression, anxiety disorders, schizoaffective disorder, and impulsive thoughts that often accompany self-mutilation. In addition, antibiotics can help treat and prevent potential infections.
- Social support. If you’re not sure how to seek treatment, opening up to a family member or trusted adult about your self-injuring behaviors might be the best way to start your journey toward recovery. Family members and close friends can provide emotional support and help you navigate treatment options. Talking to a trusted teacher or school counselor may be the best option for young adults and college students.
- Helplines. If you’re experiencing psychosis or having suicidal thoughts, help is available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the NAMI Helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) for immediate support.
Depending on your specific mental health needs, services for eating disorders, substance abuse, sexual abuse, family therapy, and gender dysphoria may also be integrated into your treatment plan.
Therapy for Self-Mutilation
If you or someone you love is self-injuring, start by consulting a mental health professional with self-mutilation experience. A mental health evaluation is the first step toward recovery, followed by a personalized treatment plan to stop the destructive cycle of self-injury.
Some types of therapy used in the treatment of self-mutilation include cognitive-behavioral therapy, interpersonal therapy, psychodynamic therapy, and dialectical behavior therapy. Because self-injuring behaviors are often associated with borderline personality disorder (BPD), dialectical behavior therapy—which is specifically aimed at treating BPD—is an effective treatment option for many individuals, according to a literature review.
To find a therapist, reach out to a mental health professional through WithTherapy. We’ll connect you to a qualified therapist you feel comfortable with, regardless of your personal preferences and requirements. Whether you’re navigating trauma, facing emotional numbness, or experiencing intense mental health symptoms, one of our therapists will help you learn healthy coping mechanisms to stop self-harming.