Approximately two million Americans currently engage in self-harm. Those who inflict self injury will often cause injury by cutting, burning, hitting, poisoning, and scratching themselves. Mental health issues such as depression are often a considerable factor in self-harm, although there are many other reasons people will engage in this type of behavior. Some do it as a “release” from emotional pain, while for some, the behaviors are compulsive. Self injury is often misunderstood and misrepresented in the media, resulting in the alienation and isolation of those who struggle with self-harming behavior.

Why do people engage in self injury?

People who self-harm do so in an attempt to relieve pain. The action temporarily distracts from the pain, but it’s an unhealthy coping mechanism that doesn’t address or solve the underlying causes. It may give people a sense of control now, but unless they address the root cause of the painful emotions, it won’t resolve anything in the long run and may cause long-term mental health and physical harm.

Some people self-harm intentionally, and many focus on particular areas of the body that are linked to a trauma they’ve experienced. Some do it as a form of self-punishment because they feel unworthy or suffer from low self-esteem or negative body image.

There are many forms of self injury, including:

  • Cutting

  • Scratching

  • Burning

  • Skin-picking

  • Headbanging

  • Hitting hard enough to bruise or break the skin

  • Eating or drinking dangerous substances

Body piercings and tattoos are both considered a form of self-expression, but a more controversial view is that tattoos and body piercings are a form of self-harm. While this may be the case for some, one study shows no definite connection between mental illness and excessive body modifications. It did show that people sometimes use tattoos or piercings as an alternate means of experiencing pain rather than engaging in self-harm.

Who is at risk?

Self injury is more common among adolescent females and people who have experienced trauma such as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. Those who cannot express their emotions or were raised in an atmosphere that discouraged the expression of anger and encouraged the suppression of emotions are also at risk. Young adults, along with people who have a history of substance abuse, mental health, or behavior disorder, are also at higher risk for self-harm behavior

Self-harm is usually a solitary behavior. People who injure themselves often go to great lengths to conceal the action and the resulting injuries. While self-harm is rarely done with the intention of suicide, the risk of suicide is there if someone’s emotional state becomes unbearable or an attempt to self-injure goes too far.

Signs of self injury

Many people use more than one method to inflict self injury and may harm different areas of their bodies. The most common targets are the arms, legs, and the front of the torso. Since there is a lot of shame associated with self-harm, these are areas of the body that can easily be covered to avoid detection.

Emotional distress can trigger the urge to self-harm, and since everyone has a different tolerance for pain, some may be more prone to hurt themselves after a stressful or upsetting event. Some people who self-injure may only harm themselves a few times, but for many others, self-injury is a long-term behavior.

These warning signs don’t necessarily mean that someone may be harming themselves, but they are red flags to look out for, especially if they are recurring.

  • Fresh scratches, bruises, or puncture wounds

  • Numerous scars which may be in a pattern

  • Wearing long pants or long sleeves, even in very warm or hot weather

  • Continuous reports of accidental injury

  • Frequently in possession of a sharp object (in a pocket, purse, or backpack)

If someone who often has difficulties in interpersonal relationships, has a history of emotional and behavioral instability or is routinely unpredictable and impulsive is displaying any warning signs, it may indicate that they are engaging in self-injurious behavior.

Seeking Treatment for Self-harm

Self injury is a sign of underlying issues that should be addressed. If you’re harming yourself or having thoughts of harming yourself, reach out for help. Serene Health has appointments available via their Telehealth app so you can speak to someone from the comfort of your own home.

If someone you care about is hurting themselves, encourage them to seek help. You may feel like you’re betraying confidence, but self-injury should never be ignored, and it’s not an issue that someone should be dealing with alone. Encourage them to call Serene Health and speak to one of our therapists. Call Serene Health at 844-737-3638 or visit us at to schedule an appointment.

Schedule appointment

Vestibulum ante ipsum

Vestibulum ac diam sit amet quam vehicula elementum sed sit amet dui. Donec rutrum congue leo eget malesuada vestibulum.

mental healthWhy Seeking Early Help for PTSD is Critical for Treatment
mental healthCovid19 Pandemic Fatigue: The Struggle is Real