Causes & Effects of Self-Harm

At San Jose Behavioral Health, we believe education is an important first step in the effort to overcome self-harm disorder. 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-harm occurs when an individual intentionally causes harm, pain, or injury to his or her own body. This behavior is also known as self-injury or self-mutilation. An individual who is affected by this condition can choose to harm his or her body in a number of ways, including cutting or burning parts of the body, picking the skin or a healing wound, scratching and wounding the skin, breaking bones, pulling out hair, or even drinking or taking poisonous substances.

A common misconception is that people who inflict harm on themselves may do so in an attempt to seek attention or in a failed attempt at suicide. The truth is that individuals who struggle with self-harm do so to relieve the distress and chaos within themselves. In some cases, individuals choose to harm their body to feel more in control. Some who find it hard to understand or cope with emotional pain opt to create physical pain to parallel their emotional pain.

Self-harm may not be a suicidal behavior but it is still very serious. Self-harm is a dangerous mental condition that should be treated immediately before an individual does more harm. Because this condition is difficult to stop, professional help is needed to guide an individual to betterment. Many individuals who engage in self-harm have fully recovered and learned to deal with emotions in healthy ways.


Self-Harm Statistics

Because self-harm is commonly performed by individuals within the confines of their personal space, statistics on this condition are hard to obtain and estimates may be lower than the actual amount of cases. It seems, however, that this condition has higher incidences among women and adolescent girls. One in 10 adolescents, including about one in five girls and one in seven boys, believed to suffer from self-harm and without treatment, this behavior can persist through adulthood.

Causes & Risks

Causes and Risk Factors of Self-Harm

Self-injury, self-harm or self-mutilation may be caused by the following factors:

Genetic: An individual who develops a behavior of inflicting harm on himself or herself is likely suffering from a mental health disorder. Mental health problems can be passed down and inherited from family members with mental illnesses. Although self-harm has not yet been clearly traced to specific genetics, mental health disorders are one risk factor that may lead to self-harm.

Environmental: Negativity and stress are strong risk factors for an individual to develop self-harm behavior. A person who is struggling to deal with intense stress may decide to inflict self-injury. Environmental exposure to traumatic situations at school, work, or within the family can lead an individual to feel out of control or unable to deal with new emotions. Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse are also risk factors for an individual to consider self-injury.

Risk Factors:

  • Women have higher risk for engaging in self-harm
  • Being impulsive
  • Self-esteem issues
  • Lack of guidance from parents
  • Inability to cope with stress and emotional dealings
  • Sexual, physical, or mental abuse in the past
  • Personal history of mental illness
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Persistent stress or trauma
  • Lack of support for emotional recovery

Signs & Symptoms

Signs and Symptoms of Self-Harm

Individuals who self-harm often do so secretively, which makes this behavior difficult for others to identify. Furthermore, self-harm incidents may vary in severity. Here are signs to look for to identify if someone is self-harming:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Poor performance and attendance at work, school, and events
  • Frequent injuries and wounds, but explanations as to where they came from are not concrete
  • Hiding scars under long clothes, even during hot seasons
  • Thin hair and/or bald areas of the hair due to pulling
  • Negativity in actions, beliefs and speech
  • Being withdrawn and isolated
  • Loss of enthusiasm and interest in regular activities

Physical symptoms:

  • Burn scars and marks
  • Wounds and scars
  • Bruises on the arms, legs and other parts of the body
  • Scratches, cuts and scrapes that are unusually positioned
  • Wounds take long time to heal
  • Broken and pained bones
  • Hair loss, thinning hair or baldness

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Thinking of ways to harm themselves
  • Unable to concentrate fully
  • Not being able to control impulsive actions and thoughts
  • Having traumatic memories and thoughts
  • Depersonalization moments or the feeling of not being inside your own body
  • Unable to control negative thoughts
  • Feeling withdrawn, depressed and detached

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Unstable emotions
  • Feeling hopeless and lack of positivity
  • Depression
  • Feeling anxious frequently
  • Feeling detached
  • Easily irritated and troubled
  • Unstable emotions, thoughts and mood
  • Being ashamed and withdrawn

Lasting Effects

Effects of Self-Harm

Needless to say, if self-harm behavior is not treated immediately, the result can be fatal. Some effects of frequent self-harm include:

  • Organ failure
  • Tissue damage
  • Developing anemia
  • Hemorrhage and blood clots
  • Scars
  • Nerve damage
  • Broken bones
  • A lasting feeling of numbness especially in the injured part of the body
  • Infections that can lead to organ problems
  • Suicide, intentional or unintentional

Other effects of self-harm, aside from physical, are the following:

  • Decrease in self-esteem
  • Job performance and career problems
  • Loss of job and financial security
  • Substance use and abuse
  • Guilt and shame for oneself
  • Conflicted relationships with family and friends
  • Isolation and withdrawal from others
  • Development of other mental health illnesses
  • Other mental illnesses can grow worse

Co-Occurring Disorders

Co-Occurring Disorders

Individuals who struggle with self-harm are often associated with other mental health conditions. These may include:

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

We admitted my son for help with his self-harm tendencies. The treatment professionals at San Jose gave him the best treatment. He has completely stopped and I am so grateful to San Jose!

– Will T.