Questions About Self-Injury, Answered

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Self-injury, also called self-harm, is the act of deliberately harming your own body in ways such as cutting or burning yourself. While it seems odd to a mentally healthy person, to someone with this impulse control disorder, self-injury seems like the best way to deal with emotional pain. About 90% of people who struggle with self-injury begin harming themselves as pre-teens or adolescents, so it is usually handled by a child psychiatrist.

Despite the way it seems, self-harm is not a suicide attempt. It is a very unhealthy way of coping with emotional pain or intense anger. While self-harm may bring a momentary release of tension and sense of calmness, it is typically followed by intense guilt and shame, leaving the self-abuser in even worse emotional pain. And with self-injury comes the possibility of more serious self-aggressive actions. This impulse control disorder is typically linked to depression, eating disorders and borderline personality disorder, but it may also manifest on its own.

Here are some self-harm statistics:

  • About two million cases of self-injury are reported annually in the United States. Of course, the actual number of people affected is probably much higher.
  • Cases of self-harm have been reported worldwide, so this problem exists outside our country.
  • Females comprise about 60% of those who engage in self-harm.
  • It is estimated that one in five females and one in seven males engage in self-injury every year.
  • Nearly half of those who harm themselves have been sexually abused.
  • The average onset age is between 12 and 15 years.

The signs of self-harm should be obvious, but the fact is, many people can hide their habits from friends and family for years. Here are some warning signs to watch out for:

  • The desire to keep sharp objects nearby at all times
  • Wearing long sleeves and pants event in hot weather, keeping covered
  • Scarring from cuts and burns
  • Sprained or broken bones with no explanation or attributed to a mysterious accident
  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Underlying depression, eating disorders, substance abuse or other issues
  • Feeling helpless, hopeless or worthless, obvious signs of guilt
  • Secretive behavior
  • Recurring new wounds like scrapes, cuts or bruises

If you suspect a child or family friend  is suffering from self-harm, be careful not to overreact. The odds are good that the person feels guilty enough and you don’t want to cause additional shame. If your child or teen is already seeing a psychiatrist at an Orange County counseling center, arrange a private talk and ask for advice about a confrontation. Otherwise, remain calm and caring. Know that this represents a way of coping and needs to be dealt with. Be gentle and compassionate, making it clear you only want to help, not judge. Do not ask about personal details or a recap or a recent bout of self-harm as you may unintentionally cause a trigger. Most importantly, seek appropriate help.