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Why Do People Self-Harm?

Why do people self-harm? The question is deceptively simple – but finding the answer can take considerable effort. Self-harm is a widely misunderstood behavior that may (or may not) be a symptom of a mental health disorder.

What Is Self-Harm?

Before we delve into the question “Why do people self-harm?” we should take a moment to discuss what, exactly, self-harm is – and what it’s not.

Self-harm refers to the intentional infliction of pain or damage to one’s own body. This can occur in a variety of ways. The following are examples of some of the most common forms of self-harm:

  • Cutting, scratching, or burning one’s skin
  • Inserting needles or other sharp objects beneath one’s skin
  • Pulling out one’s hair 
  • Repeatedly punching oneself
  • Hitting one’s head or other body parts against walls or other hard objects
  • Forcing oneself to exercise past the point of exhaustion
  • Swallowing toxic substances

Self-harm is sometimes referred to as self-mutilation, self-injury, and non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI). This final term emphasizes an important point about self-harm. Although certain types of self-harm may be unintentionally fatal, self-harming behaviors are not typically attempts to end one’s own life.  

With that said, anyone who engages in self-harm is in crisis, and they may be at risk for suicidal ideation or suicide attempts. If you or someone that you care about has been struggling with self-harm, please consult with a qualified healthcare provider. With proper care, you or your loved one can overcome these dangerous urges and learn to live a healthier life.

Important Note: If you believe that you or someone in your life is in imminent danger of suicide, summon a local emergency responder or contact the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline immediately. In the United States, the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline can be reached by calling or texting 988. You can also access this service online

Why Exactly Do People Self-Harm?

There is no single, universal answer to the question, “Why do people self-harm?” People may engage in this behavior for a variety of reasons, such as:

  • They have developed a mental health disorder.
  • They have been exposed to an overwhelming degree of stress or pressure.
  • They feel that they have lost control of their life.

Mental Health Disorders & Self-Harm

Self-harm can be a symptom of various mental and behavioral health disorders. According to a May 2014 article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, a review of 10 years’ worth of records from the UK’s National Health Service revealed that people who have the following conditions may have an elevated risk of self-harm:  

  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Substance abuse disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Schizophrenia

Other sources have also reported that self-harm can be symptomatic of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and schizoaffective disorder.

Stress, Self-Esteem, & Self-Harm

Stress-management concerns and self-esteem issues may also be factors in why do people self-harm. For example:

  • Some people may engage in self-harm as a way of punishing themselves for perceived flaws, shortcomings, or failures.
  • People may self-harm in a misguided attempt to establish a modicum of control over their bodies and their lives. 
  • Self-harm may be an attempt to give physical presence to emotional pain.

What Are the Signs of Self-Harm?

People who intentionally harm or injure themselves often go to great lengths to hide evidence of their behaviors from others. The following signs may indicate that a person has been engaging in self-harm:

  • They always wear loose or baggy clothing (to conceal weight loss related to excessive exercise).
  • They never wear short sleeves or short pants, even in warm weather (to hide cuts or scars).
  • They seem to always have cuts, or scabs that never seem to fully heal.
  • They often have bruises or broken bones, which they may attribute to accidents or clumsiness.
  • They refuse to change clothes in front of other people.
  • They have dramatic changes in mood and attitude.
  • They often make self-critical or self-deprecating remarks. 
  • They seem to have difficulty dealing with even minor stresses or setbacks.

How Is Self-Harm Treated?

Answering the question, “Why do people self-harm?” can be especially important when it comes to developing an appropriate treatment plan. Since self-harm is almost always related to a mental health disorder or another underlying cause, it is important for a person’s treatment team to understand what prompted the individual to engage in this behavior.

Following a thorough assessment, a person’s care for self-harm may involve both prescription medication and therapy. 

Medication may be a valuable element of care for people whose self-harming behaviors are related to anxiety, depression, or another mental illness. Medications that can ease the symptoms of these illnesses may also alleviate the urge for further self-harm.

Therapy for self-harm can help people manage their compulsions and react to stressors without resorting to dangerous behaviors. Depending on the information that is collected during the patient’s intake assessment, their treatment team may select services such as the following:

  • Individual, group, and family therapy
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy
  • Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)
  • Neurofeedback
  • Biofeedback
  • Biosound therapy
  • Red light therapy
  • Spravato treatment
  • Brainspotting

Find Mental Health Treatment in Nashville, TN

Arbor Wellness is a trusted provider of personalized treatment for adults who have been struggling with self-harm. Our treatment center in Nashville is a safe and supportive place where you can receive customized services from a team of dedicated and compassionate professionals. With our help, you can achieve a much healthier and more hopeful future, free from the negative effects of self-harm. To learn more about how we can help, or to schedule a free assessment, please visit our admissions page or call us today.