Causes & Effects of Self-harm

Understanding Self-harm

Learn about Self-harm Treatment

Self-harm is a condition that is characterized by an individual’s compulsion to inflict pain and/or damage upon him or herself. Self-harm is not a mental health diagnosis; however, it is often an indicator that a mental illness is present. When someone is engaged in self-harming behaviors, he or she might do things such as burning parts of his or her body, picking at wounds, pulling hair, cutting skin, drinking poisonous substances, or engaging in behaviors that can lead to broken bones or other physical injuries.

From the outside, self-harm might seem to be a way to obtain attention or an attempt at suicide. However, this is usually not the case. Often, self-harm occurs in a misguided effort to obtain relief from emotional pain. This behavior can be extremely dangerous if left untreated.

Thankfully, treatment is available to help individuals overcome the compulsion to harm themselves.


Statistics about Self-harm

Self-harm is often done secretly, meaning that it challenging to obtain a true representation of how prevalent it is. However, research has been able to determine the following statistics about self-harm:

  • Nearly one in five adolescent females and one in seven adolescent males have attempted self-harm at least once
  • Approximately 40% of individuals who self-harm during adolescent years will continue to do so in adulthood

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and Risk Factors for Self-harm

Many risk factors, including environmental and genetic ones, play a role in the onset of self-harming behaviors, such as the following:

  • Having an existing mental illness (especially bipolar disorder and depressive disorders)
  • Poor coping skills
  • Stress at home, school, and/or work
  • A history of trauma, physical abuse, or abandonment during childhood
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Impulsiveness
  • Being female
  • Low confidence and self-esteem
  • Sexual abuse as a child

Signs & Symptoms

Signs and Symptoms of Self-harm

Those who partake in self-harming behaviors might choose to harm themselves in many different ways. However the following are among the more common signs and symptoms that can signify a problem:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Bald spots and thinning hair due to pulling
  • Isolation from friends, family, and other preferred people
  • Hiding bruises and injuries by wearing long sleeved shirts and pants, even during hot weather
  • Negative feelings, thoughts, and beliefs
  • Unrealistic explanations to where injuries originate
  • Lack and loss of interest in normally enjoyable activities
  • Frequent absence from school, work, and other social gatherings

Physical symptoms:

  • Cuts and burns
  • Constant bruises that are not caused by anemia and other health conditions
  • Bald spots or thinning hair
  • Broken bones or unusual sprains
  • Scratches and scrapes on the skin
  • Wounds that do not heal (due to picking of wounds)
  • Scars

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Having the desire to harm one’s self
  • Impulsive thoughts and actions, and the inability to control them
  • Inability to concentrate well
  • Feelings of “derealization,” or difficulty in determining reality from non-reality
  • “Out of body” experiences (depersonalization)
  • Painful and disturbing memories
  • Negative thoughts

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Depressed mood
  • Feeling anxious
  • Easily irritated and distracted
  • Emotional instability
  • Sudden and intense mood swings
  • A strong feeling of guilt or shame
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless
  • Detachment or lack of emotions

Lasting Effects

Effects of Self-harm

The effects of self-harm will vary from individual to individual, and will depend on the kind of self-harm that he or she is engaging in. Additionally, if someone who self-harms does not receive help, the effects that he or she might suffer can be serious and potentially fatal. Some of these effects can include the following:

  • Broken bones that may or may not heal
  • Anemia
  • Internal bleeding
  • Nerve damage
  • Tissue damage
  • Organ failure
  • Death or suicide
  • Infections in wounds, including potentially life-threatening infections like MRSA
  • Body weakness and numbness on some body parts


The effects of self-harm are not just limited to physical effects. The following can also result:

  • Poor performance at school or work
  • Failure in academics or job loss
  • Low self confidence and self-esteem
  • Drugs and alcohol use and abuse
  • Conflict in personal relationships
  • Risking the development of other mental health disorders
  • Strong feeling of guilt and shame
  • Lack of interest to socialize and interact
  • Illnesses that can be caused by infections from injuries

Co-Occurring Disorders

Co-Occurring Substance Abuse or Mental Health Issues

Self-harm is often a symptom of a mental illness. Individuals who engage in this dangerous behavior may be struggling with one or more of the following mental health disorders:

  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Attention hyperactivity/deficit disorder (ADHD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Schizoaffective disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Substance use disorder
  • Depressive disorders
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