7 Reasons Why People Self-Harm & How to Get Them Help
Self-harm—also called self-injury, self-abuse, self-mutilation, and often “cutting” when it involves a sharp object—is known to occur in at least 10 to 20 percent of the U. S. population. Around 80 percent of self-harm injuries involve cutting oneself; head-banging and self-burning are the next most common forms. Some people drink harmful substances (a behavior not to be confused with tasting or inhaling for intoxication purposes); some provoke others to strike them.
The largest group of known self-harmers comprises adolescent girls and young women, but males do it too, as have at least 5 percent of adults and 1.3 percent of pre-middle-school children. Self-harming isn’t even exclusive to humans: dogs and cats have been observed inexplicably biting themselves, scratching half-healed wounds back open, and licking themselves to the point of hair loss or skin infection.
The following demographic groups are considered highest-risk:
- People with emotional-control or communications difficulties.
- People with addiction disorders, mental illnesses, or unresolved gender/sexuality confusion.
- People who are bullied or rejected by peers, or who are in abusive relationships.
Your child or loved one may have a self-harming problem if she or he displays:
- A sudden predilection for clothing that minimizes skin visibility.
- Frequent physical injuries—especially on the arms, legs, or abdomen—and evasiveness about their source.
- An increase in secretive behavior.
- Frequent self-criticism.
- Scars that form patterns or symbols (a sign of ritualistic cutting).
- Possession of unexplained sharp or dangerous objects.
7 Reasons Why People Self-Harm
1. Desire to Release Tension
Many self-harmers harbor intense emotions they can’t put into words. Cutting themselves to release blood can serve as a metaphoric catharsis, letting out what’s trapped inside.
2. Desire to Gain Control
Suffering from trauma or stress means feeling helplessly tossed about by life. Exercising even harmful control over one’s own body can represent a weapon against a world out of control:
- “I’ll hurt myself before ‘they’ have a chance to.”
- “I’ll pound some toughness into myself.”
- “I’ll give someone a reason to feel sorry for me.”
When self-harm fueled by “get control” thinking becomes a habit, the pain can actually start to feel good, generating euphoria akin to a runner’s high.
If the feeling of a world gone insane can trigger self-harming, so can the feeling of a world where “nothing ever happens.” Human nature requires a certain level of challenge, even risk, for life to feel worthwhile. In the absence of external circumstances fitting that description, some people turn to self-harm as an alternative.
Where boredom feels that the world has gone dead, numbness suspects as much of one’s own self. You may have had the experience of falling asleep on an arm or leg, waking to find it has lost all physical sensation—and resorting to slapping, stomping, or biting it to stimulate its nerves back into action. A chronic sense of emotional numbness may similarly motivate physical self-harm: even severe pain feels better than nothingness.
Victims of abuse, subjected to constant “You’re worthless” comments from outside, typically come to believe it. They may feel the urge to punish themselves for existing—or to express “I’m ugly” feelings by self-mutilation.
6. Mental Disorders
Self-harming habits are a common symptom and side effect of borderline personality disorder, major depression, anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorder, addiction disorder, and other mental illnesses.
7. Association with Others Who Self-Harm
Peer pressure operates here as anywhere else: in some circles, self-harming has become “the thing to do.” And in the social-media age, visual images of strangers hurting themselves can encourage others to try it.
How to Get Help for Self-Harm
No matter what motivates any individual to self-harm, it should not be dismissed as “just a phase,” even if there’s been no serious injury yet. While self-harmers rarely intend permanent damage, there’s always the risk of accidental serious injury—or of depression and frustration accumulating to the point of suicide.
If the self-harmer is a minor in your custody, you have the right and responsibility to insist they see a mental health professional. But first, express your concerns gently and encourage them to put their struggles into their own words. Never express horror or make threats. Someone who self-harms has major shame and anxiety issues; the last thing they need is to have those feelings reinforced by those they should be able to trust for support.
With a friend or adult relative, assure them you care about them and are deeply concerned; urge them to get help; and resolve to stand by them for the long haul. After the self-harming problem is treated, there will still be emotional challenges to deal with, and healthier coping habits (arts, physical activity, meditation) to establish. Your loved one needs ongoing support to replace self-harm and self-loathing with healthy self-appreciation.
Pine Grove Treats the Whole Person
People who self-harm have psychological issues beyond addiction. At Pine Grove, we treat the whole person by means of psychiatry, counseling, and attention to individual needs. We have residential and outpatient programs for a wide range of ages and problems. Contact us today to find help for a loved one.