In the United States, as many as 35 percent of adolescents intentionally inflict harm to their bodies. This is called self-harming, self-injury, or self-abuse. Often, people who take part in this type of behavior have some underlying emotional trauma or disorder. They harm themselves by either cutting, burning, punching, throwing themselves against objects such as a wall, pulling out hair, or biting. These things are done as a way of coping with emotions such as pain, fear, self-loathing, sadness, rage, or guilt. The addictive self-harm behaviors take away these feelings temporarily, and as a result, the action is often repeated on an ongoing basis. Because this is usually a sign of deeper problems, help is needed to overcome this condition. Also, self-harming behavior can result in serious injury or loss of life if severe blood loss occurs or infection sets in.
Myths and Facts About Self-Harm
The act of self-harm is surrounded by many myths or misconceptions that can hinder a person’s ability to get the help that they need. These misconceptions often add to the sense of shame that a person may already have regarding their actions. One of the more common myths is that self-harm is an attention-seeking act. The fact is that people who do self-injure do so in secrecy. They do not advertise that they do this, and they often feel shame. Another myth is that self-harming is something that only girls do. This is false, and the facts show that as many as 40% of individuals who self-harm are male. It is often believed that only teens self-harm. While a majority of self-harm cases involve teens, adults can and do self-harm as well. Usually, people think that someone who inflicts self-harm is attempting to commit suicide. Again, this is false, as people use self-injury as a way to manage their emotions and stress and prevent themselves from committing suicide. The misconception that self-harm is just another term for cutting is also confusing. While cutting is a form of self-harm, there are many other ways in which a person can injure themselves and still fall within this umbrella term.
Signs and Symptoms of Addictive Self-Harm Behaviors
As with most conditions, specific signs and symptoms indicate whether or not a person is guilty of committing self-harm. While some of these signs are obvious, such as scarring from cutting, other signs are less visible or easy to recognize. In addition to scars from cuts, there may be older scars, such as burns. Unexplained bruises, bald patches, or broken bones may also be indicative of self-harming behavior. Other signs include wearing clothing that completely covers the arms and legs despite high temperatures, isolating oneself, and frequent claims of having accidents to explain injuries. Some of the symptoms associated with addictive self-harm behaviors involve how a person speaks or perceives themselves. The person in question may talk frequently of feeling hopeless or worthless. They may question their reason for being and their identity and behave in a way that shows impulsiveness and instability on an emotional level.
Help and Coping Options
There are several potential ways to obtain help for self-harming; however, it all starts with talking to someone first, such as a friend or a medical professional. Although treatment is often dependent on several factors involving the individual, psychotherapy is often recommended. For some people who engage in this type of behavior, an inpatient treatment program may be necessary. If depression is a cause of the condition, medication may be given to treat the depression.
During and after obtaining help, both the individual and their family will need to learn how to cope with the condition to prevent its return. The individual must plan how to deal with emotions as well as situations that trigger the self-harming behavior. Also, they should learn positive ways to go about expressing emotion. Another way to successfully cope is to find and associate with supportive people while avoiding negativity, particularly in the form of people who have addictive self-harm behaviors or who promote that type of behavior. Having a good support system is also crucial for families and friends who are coping with this condition.
More Information and Resources
- Self-Harm Introduction
- Self-Injury/Cutting: Symptoms
- Medline Plus: Self-Harm
- TeensHealth: Cutting
- Cutting and Hurting Yourself
- What is Self-Harm?
- Youth and Self-Injury
- Self-Harm and Trauma
- Cutting and Self-Harm
- Top 15 Misconceptions About Self-Injury (PDF)
- Self-Injury Handout (PDF)
- Adolescent Self-Harm and Suicide Ideation (PDF)