Nonsuicidal self-injury, commonly referred to as self-injury, is the intentional act of harming one’s own body, such as cutting or burning oneself. It is typically not a suicide attempt but rather a harmful way to cope with emotional pain, sadness, anger, and stress.
Symptoms of self-injury may include scars in patterns, fresh cuts, scratches, bruises, bite marks, or other wounds. Individuals may engage in excessive rubbing to create a burn, keep sharp objects or items used for self-injury on hand, and wear concealing clothing even in hot weather to hide self-harm. Other signs include frequent reports of accidental injury, difficulties in relationships, impulsive and intense emotions, and talk of helplessness, hopelessness, or worthlessness.
Self-injury is usually done in private and often follows a controlled pattern, leaving identifiable marks on the skin. Common forms of self-injury include cutting, burning, carving words or symbols, self-hitting, piercing, and inserting objects under the skin. The targets of self-injury are most commonly the arms, legs, chest, and belly, although any area of the body may be affected.
If you or someone you know is engaging in self-injury or experiencing thoughts of self-harm, it is essential to reach out for help. Any form of self-injury indicates the presence of underlying stressors that need attention. Talking to a trusted individual, such as a friend, family member, healthcare provider, or school counselor, can be the first step toward successful treatment. It’s crucial to remember that seeking help from supportive and non-judgmental individuals is essential in overcoming self-injury.
If self-injury results in severe injury or if there are concerns about life-threatening harm or suicide, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately. Additionally, consider contacting your mental health provider, a suicide hotline, a school counselor or nurse, a close friend or family member, or a spiritual leader for immediate support.
The causes of self-injury are complex and can vary from person to person. It is often a result of poor coping skills and difficulties managing emotions, such as feelings of worthlessness, loneliness, anger, guilt, and rejection. Self-injury may be an attempt to manage distress, gain a sense of control, express internal feelings, or communicate stress or depression to the outside world. Risk factors for self-injury include having friends who self-injure, experiencing past neglect or abuse, struggling with mental health issues, and using alcohol or drugs.
Self-injury can lead to feelings of shame, guilt, low self-esteem, and permanent scars or harm to the body. If not properly treated, underlying issues may worsen. Although self-injury is not typically a suicide attempt, it can increase the risk of suicide due to the emotional problems that trigger self-harm. The pattern of damaging the body during times of distress can also make suicide more likely.
Preventing self-injury involves strategies at both individual and community levels. Identifying individuals at risk and offering help, encouraging supportive social networks, raising awareness, promoting help-seeking behaviors, and discussing media influence are essential steps in reducing the risk of self-injury.
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Although some people may ask for help, sometimes family or friends discover the self-injury. Or a health care provider doing a routine medical exam may notice signs, such as scars or fresh injuries.
The first step is to tell someone about your self-injuring behavior so you can get help. Treatment is based on your specific issues and any related mental health conditions you might have, such as depression. Because self-injury can become a major part of your life, it’s best to get treatment from a mental health professional who is experienced in treating self-injury.
Known as talk therapy or psychological counseling, psychotherapy can help you:
In addition to professional treatment, here are some important self-care tips: