Self- injury, also known as self-harm, occurs when an individual deliberately harms his or her own body. People who harm their own body, often do so by cutting or burning themselves. Self-injury is often related to trauma, and those who harm or hurt themselves are likely to have been abused in childhood. Self-injury is often a coping mechanism used by people to deal with severe emotional pain, anger, or frustration. The act of hurting themselves helps some people forget their feelings and emotional troubles and focus instead on their self-inflicted physical pain. While these people may not be suicidal, they are consciously injuring themselves and may cause permanent damage or accidental suicide.

Forms of Self-injury

One of the most common forms of self-injury is cutting. An individual may use a knife or razor to make cuts or deep scratches on different parts of the body. Other forms of self-injury may include:

  • Burning
  • Hitting or punching
  • Breaking bones
  • Piercing the skin
  • Pulling out hair
  • Banging the head

People who self-injure may use more than one method to inflict harm on themselves.

Signs and Symptoms of Self-injury

Many people who injure themselves try to keep these activities secret and will often not seek treatment. It is important for loved ones to be aware of the following signs of self-injury:

  • Scars
  • Fresh cuts or scratches
  • Bruises or broken bones
  • Spending a lot of time alone
  • Wearing long sleeves or pants even in hot weather
  • Claiming to have frequent accidents
  • Behavioral and emotional instability
  • Depression

Causes of Self-injury

There is no specific cause for self-injury, however, many people who inflict self-harm may suffer from mental health disorders such as depression, eating disorders and personality disorders. Females are more likely than males to induce self-harm and certain people may have an increased risk for self-injury including those who:

  • Were sexually or physically abused as a child
  • Suffer from mental health issues
  • Have friends who self-injure
  • Are teenagers or young adults
  • Abuse alcohol or drugs

Risks of Self-injury

In addition to the mental and emotional stress caused by self-injury, and because individuals often do not seek medical attention for their injuries, physical complications may occur and include:

  • Infection
  • Permanent scarring
  • Severe blood loss, if blood vessels or arteries are cut
  • Disfigurement
  • Severe or fatal injury
  • Increased alcohol or drug abuse

Self-injury is often an impulsive behavior and can result in feelings of guilt and shame after the initial feelings of relief. Although self-injury is usually not an attempt of suicide, the risk of suicide may increase as the emotional problems caused by self-injury intensify. The pattern of damaging the body in times of mental distress can sometimes make suicide more likely to occur.

Treatment of Self-injury

Treatment for self-injury can vary based on the individual and any underlying mental disorders. After a thorough evaluation by a mental health professional, a treatment plan will be developed which may include:

  • Psychotherapy
  • Medication
  • Psychiatric hospitalization (in severe cases)

Different forms of psychotherapy can help the patient identify and manage difficult emotions, improve self-image, and cope with traumatic memories and past experiences. Medication can help to treat some of the underlying mental disorders. Support groups can also be beneficial to individuals who are trying to stop the behavior of self-injury.

Additional Resources