What is self-harm?
Self-harm, or self-injury, is when a person hurts his or her own body on purpose. The injuries may be minor, but sometimes they can be severe. They may leave permanent scars or cause serious health problems. Some examples are:
- Cutting yourself (such as using a razor blade, knife, or other sharp object to cut your skin)
- Punching yourself or punching things (like a wall)
- Burning yourself with cigarettes, matches, or candles
- Pulling out your hair
- Poking objects through body openings
- Breaking your bones or bruising yourself
Self-harm is not a mental disorder. It is a behavior - an unhealthy way to cope with strong feelings. However, some of the people who harm themselves do have a mental disorder.
People who harm themselves are usually not trying to kill themselves. But they are at higher risk of attempting suicide if they do not get help.
Why do people harm themselves?
There are different reasons why people harm themselves. Often, they have trouble coping and dealing with their feelings. They harm themselves to try to:
- Make themselves feel something, when they feel empty or numb inside
- Block upsetting memories
- Show that they need help
- Release strong feelings that overwhelm them, such as anger, loneliness, or hopelessness
- Punish themselves
- Feel a sense of control
Who is at risk for self-harm?
There are people of all ages who harm themselves, but it usually starts in the teen or early adult years. Self-harm is more common in people who:
- Were abused or went through a trauma as children
- Have mental disorders, such as
- Misuse drugs or alcohol
- Have friends who self-harm
- Have low self-esteem
What are the signs of self-harm?
Signs that someone may be hurting themselves include:
- Having frequent cuts, bruises, or scars
- Wearing long sleeves or pants even in hot weather
- Making excuses about injuries
- Having sharp objects around for no clear reason
How can I help someone who self-harms?
If someone you know is self-harming, it is important not to be judgmental. Let that person know that you want to help. If the person is a child or teenager, ask him or her to talk to a trusted adult. If he or she won't do that, talk to a trusted adult yourself. If the person who is self-harming is an adult, suggest mental health counseling.
What the treatments are for self-harm?
There are no medicines to treat self-harming behaviors. But there are medicines to treat any mental disorders that the person may have, such as anxiety and depression. Treating the mental disorder may weaken the urge to self-harm.
Mental health counseling or therapy can also help by teaching the person:
- Problem-solving skills
- New ways to cope with strong emotions
- Better relationship skills
- Ways to strengthen self-esteem
If the problem is severe, the person may need more intensive treatment in a psychiatric hospital or a mental health day program.
- Teens Homeless with Families More Likely to Self-Harm, Consider and Attempt Suicide than Youth with Homes (American Academy of Pediatrics)
Statistics and Research
- Youths Treated for Non-Suicidal Self Harm at Increased Risk of Suicide Within a Year (American Academy of Pediatrics)
Journal Articles References and abstracts from MEDLINE/PubMed (National Library of Medicine)
Find an Expert
- American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
- Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)
- National Institute of Mental Health Also in Spanish
- Psychologist Locator (American Psychological Association)
- Cutting and Self-Harm (Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health)