Self-Harm Causes & Effects

The signs, symptoms, and effects of self-harm can look different for each person impacted. Learning about self-harm is one of the first steps toward healing.

Understanding Self-Harm

Learn about self-harm

Self-harm refers to the act of intentionally inflicting pain onto oneself. Also known as self-injury and self-mutilation, people who engage in these behaviors may use many different means of inflicting such pain. Cutting, burning, biting, picking at skin, scratching, pulling out one’s hair, purposely breaking one’s bones, and drinking harmful substances are all forms of self-harm. One misperception that commonly surrounds self-harm is that those who participate in such behaviors are doing so because they want to end their lives or because they are seeking attention from others. This, however, is rarely the case. In many instances, individuals engage in self-harming behaviors as a means of obtaining relief from a negative feeling or cognitive state. In other instances, individuals may engage in such behaviors as a way to obtain a sense of control over something when they feel as though other aspects of their lives are out of their control. In other instances still, individuals may self-injure in order to give a physical presence to the emotional distress or turmoil they are experiencing. In other words, it provides them with a way to physically see pain instead of only feeling it emotionally.

Regardless of the circumstances behind why an individual begins to behave in this manner, it can ultimately be a very addictive behavior that is difficult to overcome. Fortunately, there are treatment options available that can help individuals overcome their compulsion to engage in self-harming behaviors and develop the coping skills necessary to successfully and healthily manage future distresses.


Self-harm statistics

When individuals engage in self-harming behaviors, they typically do so in private. Because of this, the true prevalence rate of how many people engage in these behaviors is not known. Despite this fact, however, research that has been conducted based on self-reports has estimated that one in every five females and one in every seven males has taken part in some type of self-mutilation. In regards to adolescents, studies have shown that 10% of youth between the ages of 12 and 18 self-injure, and one in every 200 girls between the ages of 13 and 19 purposely inflicts harm onto herself in some way on a regular basis.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for self-harm

There are various factors that can play a role in an individual’s vulnerability to engaging in self-harming behaviors. Such factors are described briefly in the following:

Genetic: Self-harming behaviors are often indicative of mental illness, and many mental illnesses are heritable in nature. This means that, although self-injury itself is not something that someone can inherit, the mental illnesses of which it can be symptomatic may be. Research has demonstrated that individuals who have biological family members who suffer from mental disorders like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder are more susceptible to suffering from such illnesses themselves, making them vulnerable to symptoms like self-harm.

Environmental: There are some environmental factors that can make an individual more susceptible to engaging in self-harming behaviors. This is especially true for individuals who lack the healthy coping skills that are necessary for dealing with emotional turmoil and distressful situations. Being subjected to stressful work, home, or school environments can, for some people, elicit so much distress that they turn to self-harm as a means of finding something over which they can have some control. The same is true for some individuals who have been the victims of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse and/or neglect. They may resort to self-mutilation because it allows them to be in control of the pain that they are inflicting instead of being the victim of pain inflicted by someone else.

Risk Factors:

  • Being female
  • Personal history of mental illness
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Experiencing trauma
  • Being the victim of abuse and/or neglect
  • Poor impulse control
  • Lacking healthy coping skills
  • Lacking a healthy support network
  • Lacking parental involvement
  • Possessing a low self-esteem

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of self-harm

When individuals self-harm, the symptoms that may be present will vary depending upon the method that is being used to inflict the harm, as well as the length of time the self-mutilation has continued. Due to the fact that self-harming behaviors typically occur in private, it is not always easy to determine whether or not an individual is engaging in such acts. However, if you are concerned that a loved one may be self-injuring, it is important to take note of the following symptoms:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • School refusal
  • Frequent absences from work
  • No longer participating in activities that were once enjoyed
  • Isolating oneself from friends and family
  • Pulling out one’s hair
  • Purposely putting oneself in harm’s way
  • When asked about injuries, explaining them away as being accidents
  • Wearing long pants or long-sleeved shirts, even when it is hot outside, in order to hide injuries

Physical symptoms:

  • Broken bones
  • Burn marks on the skin
  • Frequent bruising
  • Patches of missing hair
  • Scarring
  • Frequent cuts, scrapes, or scratches
  • Wounds that do not seem to heal in a timely manner

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Concentration difficulties
  • Lack of impulse control
  • Episodes of depersonalization (when one’s thoughts and feelings seem unreal or as though he or she has lost his or her sense of identity)
  • Episodes of derealization (feeling as though the things around a person are not real)
  • Memory disturbances
  • Preoccupation with wanting to self-harm

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Periods of emotional detachment
  • Emotional instability
  • Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
  • Feelings of shame
  • Mood instability
  • Agitation and irritability
  • Excessive feelings of anxiety (especially when unable to self-harm)
  • Depressed feelings


Effects of self-harm

There are a number of effects that can result from ongoing self-harming behaviors. The number of physical effects that can arise are vast and will typically vary depending upon the method by which one chooses to purposely harm him or herself. Examples of possible physical effects can include:

  • Tissue damage
  • Nerve damage
  • Anemia
  • Hemorrhaging
  • Organ failure
  • Permanent scarring
  • Infected wounds
  • Permanent numbness or weakness in certain parts of the body
  • Broken bones or improper healing of broken bones

In addition to physical effects, chronic self-mutilation can result in negative consequences in other parts of an individual’s life as well. Examples of such effects may include:

  • Decline in academic performance
  • Decline in occupational performance
  • Social withdrawal
  • Relationship disturbances
  • Consistently declining self-esteem
  • Ongoing feelings of shame, guilt, and disgust with oneself
  • Developing a problem with abusing drugs and/or alcohol
  • Experiencing the onset of additional mental health concerns
  • Exacerbated symptoms of a present mental health disorder

Co-Occurring Disorders

Self-harm and co-occurring disorders

People who engage in self-harming behaviors are typically suffering from a mental health condition. Examples of various disorders of which self-injury may be symptomatic include:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Schizoaffective disorder
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Substance use disorders
  • Borderline personality disorder

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