Causes & Effects of Self-Harm

At Covington Behavioral Health, we believe education is an important first step in the effort to heal from self-harm. Understanding the signs, symptoms, and effects of self-harm can help you get the right type and level of care for yourself or a loved one.

Understanding Self-Harm

Learn about self-harm

Self-injury and self-mutilation are known clinically as self-harm. Self-harm occurs when a person intentionally causes damage, injury, or pain to his or her own body. Some common ways that individuals engage in self-harm include cutting or burning skin, picking at skin, interfering with healing of wounds, scratching, pulling hair, drinking toxic substances or even intentionally breaking one’s own bones.

Many people mistake acts of self-harm as attention-seeking behavior. Others confuse self-harm for an unsuccessful attempt at suicide. Self-harm is actually not a suicide attempt or a way to seek attention. Self-harm is often an attempt to create relief from emotional pain. Often, these individuals enact physical pain because they need the skills to cope with emotional pain that seems uncontrollable. Unfortunately, self-harm is also very dangerous and may have serious repercussions. For this reason, self-harm requires immediate treatment.

Self-harm can be very difficult to stop. Professional help does show good results in helping individuals stop this behavior. There are a number of treatments that can treat both the self-injuring behavior and the underlying causes behind this behavior. Many individuals have been able to stop self-harming after gaining skills to cope with stress, depression or trauma in a healthy way.


Self-harm statistics

It is difficult to get accurate statistics on self-harm it typically occurs in private, and individuals who self-harm often go to great lengths to hide their behavior. However, available research shows that up to one in seven adolescent males and one in five adolescent females have engaged in self-harm at some point, making up a total of 10 percent of individuals under age 18. While these numbers concern younger individuals, most self-harmers begin this behavior in adolescence and up to 40% of those individuals continue this behavior into adulthood.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for self-harm

The following factors may impact a person’s tendency to engage in self-harm:

Genetic: Often, self-harm occurs along with some type of mental illness. Genetics often impact a person’s risk of mental illness. Thus, the disorders that lead to self-injury and self-harm are often passed down through families. Research indicates that heritable disorders such as bipolar I, bipolar II, and depression are linked to self-injury behaviors.

Environmental: A number of environmental factors may lead an individual to have a higher risk of self-harm. Individuals who already have limited coping skills may become more likely to self-harm after a stressful or negative situation, especially if that situation involves trauma. Daily stresses of work, school or home life may lead some individuals to feel so overwhelmed that self-harm becomes a viable option. A history of sexual or physical abuse or childhood neglect may contribute to these behaviors even more. Often, past history of abuse leads individuals to determine that self-injury is the only way to find some relief from emotional turmoil.

Risk Factors:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Little or no childhood support from parents
  • Being female (males are less likely to self-harm)
  • History of neglect, physical or sexual abuse or assault
  • Impulsive tendencies
  • Little or no healthy support system
  • Previous history of mental disorders
  • Trauma experience, particularly complex or repeated traumas
  • Family history of mental illness

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of self-harm

Symptoms of self-harm vary in a variety of ways. Each individual may choose to engage in self-harm in a unique way, and the consequences of these actions can vary from serious to severe. It is not always easy to determine if a loved one is engaging in self-harm, but if you are concerned that someone is self-injuring, look for the following symptoms:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Wearing long sleeves or long pants to hide injuries, even in warm weather
  • Increased isolation
  • Missed attendance at work, school, or social events
  • Thin hair or bald spots from hair pulling
  • Strange or far-fetched explanations for injuries
  • Negative belief about self, others, or situations
  • Loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyed

Physical symptoms:

  • Burns or cuts on body
  • Wounds that seem not to heal
  • Scars
  • Cuts, scrapes or scratches that frequently return
  • Unexplained bruises on skin (after ruling out anemia and other conditions)
  • Broken bones
  • Missing hair in patches

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Inability to stop negative thoughts from spiraling out of control
  • Lack of control over impulsive desires or thoughts
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Thinking about the desire to self-harm frequently
  • Derealization or detachment from reality
  • Disturbing memories or flashbacks
  • Depersonalization, or feeling “out of body”

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Fluctuating, unstable moods
  • Depression or sadness
  • Detachment from emotions
  • Helpless or hopeless outlook
  • Anxiety
  • Emotional instability
  • Shame or guilt
  • Agitation and irritability


Effects of self-harm

The consequences of untreated self-harm can be dangerous or even fatal. Some of the consequences of self-harm include:

  • Damaged tissue
  • Organ failure
  • Scars
  • Anemia
  • Bleeding or hemorrhages
  • Broken bones or sprains that will not heal
  • ones that may not heal properly
  • Nerve damage
  • Infections in wounds
  • Permanent weakness or numbness in body parts
  • Accidental suicide
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Lowered self-esteem
  • Lowered work performance
  • Job loss or academic failure
  • Loss of social interaction or activity
  • Activation of mental health disorders
  • Shame or guilt about behavior
  • Illness caused by injury
  • Relationship conflict or relationship loss

Co-Occurring Disorders

Self-harm and co-occurring disorders

Other mental health conditions frequently co-occur with self-harm. Some of the many conditions that exist alongside self-harm include:

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

Prior to treatment, my life was not only unmanageable, it was unlivable. Covington Behavioral Health Hospital helped provide me with a full, meaningful life. Thank you!

– a former patient
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