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Self-harm, cutting and self-injury

What is self-harm?

A person who self-harms causes intentional damage or injury to their body.

According to the organisation Self Harm UK, around 13% of young people may try to harm themselves between the ages of 11 and 16.

Self-harm requires medical help and is often linked to severe emotional distress.

Self-harm is also called self-injury, self-mutilation, or cutting.

Symptoms of self-harm

Self-harm behaviour can include:

  • Cutting
  • Burning (or "branding" with hot objects)
  • Picking at skin or re-opening wounds
  • Hair-pulling or trichotillomania
  • Head-banging
  • Hitting (with hammer or other object)
  • Bone-breaking

Most people who engage in self-harm act alone rather than in groups. They also attempt to hide their behaviour.

Who is more likely to engage in self-harm?

Self-harm can occur in either sex and in any ethnic background. Self-harm is most common among 15-19-year-olds, and in people suffering from anxiety and depression. The behaviour is not limited by education, age, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or religion. However, there are some common factors among people who engage in self-harm.

What causes self-harm?

Self-harm usually occurs when people face what seems like overwhelming or distressing feelings. Sufferers may feel that self-harm is a way of:

  • Temporarily relieving intense feelings, pressure, or anxiety
  • Being real, being alive, or feeling something
  • Being able to feel pain on the outside instead of the inside
  • Being a means to control and manage pain - unlike the pain experienced through physical or sexual abuse
  • Providing a way to break emotional numbness - the self- anaesthesia that allows someone to cut without feeling pain
  • Asking for help in an indirect way or drawing attention to the need for help
  • Attempting to affect others by manipulating them, trying to make them care, trying to make them feel guilty, or trying to make them go away

Self-harm may also be a reflection of a person's self-hatred. Some self-harmers are punishing themselves for having strong feelings that they were usually not allowed to express as children. They may also be punishing themselves for somehow being bad and undeserving. These feelings are a by-product of abuse and a belief that the abuse was deserved.

Although there is the possibility that a self-inflicted injury may result in life-threatening damage, self harm is not considered to be suicidal behaviour.

What are the symptoms of self-harm?

The symptoms of self-harm include:

  • Frequent cuts and burns that cannot be explained
  • Self-punching or scratching
  • Needle pricking
  • Head banging
  • Eye pressing
  • Finger or arm biting
  • Pulling out one's hair
  • Picking at one's skin

Warning signs of self-harm

Signs that an individual may be engaging in self-harm include:

  • Wearing of trousers and long sleeves in warm weather
  • The appearance of lighters, razors, or sharp objects that one would not expect among a person's belongings
  • Low self-esteem
  • Difficulty handling feelings
  • Relationship problems
  • Poor functioning at work, school, or home
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