The how and why of self-harm and how to get help


Self-harm is a direct and deliberate, non-verbal expression of emotions accomplished through physically harming oneself. The most common form of self-harm is cutting on one’s arms, legs, and other parts of the body. However, there is a spectrum of various self-harm behaviors that range from mild to risky to fatal. Self-harm will also commonly involve addictions like drug abuse, alcoholism, eating disorders and compulsive gambling. Continuous self-harming behaviors can lead to a person’s downfall if not treated.

Causes and risk factors for self-harm

The acts of self-harm are unfortunately very common in young people worldwide. Studies show that somewhere between 14 percent to 38 percent of adolescents and college-aged individuals engage in self-injury behaviors (Prinstein, 2008; Walsh, 2007). Further research has also shown that self-harm can be a result of past traumatic experiences or personally emotional expressions manifested through self-harm used as coping skills when dealing with everyday common stressors. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, studies show that many people who engage in self-harm behaviors had been survivors of childhood sexual abuse, childhood physical abuse, emotional neglect or unstable relationships with parents or guardians. (DVA 2014)

The Department of Psychological Medicine in Otago Medical School in Dunedin, New Zealand did a study to investigate the association between childhood sexual abuse and subsequent incidents of self-harm in women. The results revealed there was a very clear association between these two factors; self-harm was also associated with difficult interpersonal problems in the subject’s family. Another study conducted among homosexual people found there were higher rates of “nonfatal suicidal behavior”, compared to heterosexuals, beginning in teen years. (Skegg; Nada-Raja; Dickson; Paul; Williams 2003)

There are other risk factors that can influence a person to engage in self harm. Along with those factors previously mentioned a person may be more at risk to engage in self-harm in they struggle with low socio-economic environments, struggle with their sexual orientation, have been abused or are being abused, are struggling with mental health issues or are abusing drugs or alcohol.

The different forms of self harm

Self harm is a an activity that isn’t just limited to cutting oneself. It can take many forms. For some drug or alcohol abuse is a form of self harm. For still other there are many forms of self-harm that can be used. These can include burning, breaking bones, punching or hitting oneself, interfering with the healing of a wound and more.

Help for self-harm

Those who are struggling with self-harm do have resources available to help them stop these destructive activities and conquer the issues fueling them. Often the treatment for self-harm will include the use of medication if necessary, therapy or a combination of both.

There aren’t medications that specifically treat self-harm behavior; however, a doctor can prescribe antidepressants and/or psychiatric medications that can help a person who is engaging in self-harm to address any underlying issues such as depression, anxiety etc.

Therapy includes a wide range of options. Much like with medication, an individual should take the time to determine which one work best for their particular situation. A couple of the most common and helpful forms of therapy for self-harm include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This form of therapy helps patients identify their negative beliefs and thoughts, as well as the triggers for self-harm. Once the negative thoughts have been identified, the next step is to identify the person’s common reactions to these triggers. With the help of a therapist, patients can learn new ways of thinking and develop new strategies to react differently in ways that can provide some type of pleasure or euphoria that could possibly take place of the pleasure they received from the act of self-harm.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy(DBT): Through working with a therapist in DBT, patients learn new skills to tolerate the fears, negative thoughts or feelings that would usually trigger them to harm themselves. Successful DBT will decrease the frequency and severity of self-harm, as well as help patients come up with a plan of action they will take instead of inflicting self-harm when they are triggered to do so.
  • If you would like more information on how to find treatment for self-harm or self-destructive behavior, you can call the Mental Health Helpline at 855-653-8178 to speak to a member of our team and start the journey to recovery today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *