Causes & Effects of Self-Harm

Learn how to recognize the signs and symptoms of self-harm and get help for your child, teen, or young adult.

Understanding Self-Harm

Learn about self-harm

Self-harming behaviors are characterized as those in which a person intentionally inflicts pain onto him or herself. These behaviors, also known as self-injury or self-mutilation, can include things such as cutting, burning, biting, hitting, punching, pulling out hair, purposely breaking bones, picking skin, or drinking harmful substances, such as detergent or bleach.

The presence of self-injury is often misinterpreted as being due to an individual’s desire to end his or her own life. However, in the majority of situations, this is not the case. There may be a number of different reasons as to why children and adolescents begin to self-harm, but most of the time it is done so as a means of trying to gain a sense of control over something. Many of these children are suffering from inner emotional turmoil that they do not know how to cope with. Because they are unable to control their inner pain, they purposely inflict physical pain onto themselves because this is something that they are able to see, understand, and control.

Regardless of the reasons why a child or adolescent begins to self-harm, the behavior itself can quickly become addictive. However, the relief that self harming behaviors provide are temporary and, in order for true healing to occur, children and adolescents must receive treatment that addresses the underlying reasons for why the behaviors of self-injury began in the first place.


Self-harm statistics

Because self-injury is something is typically done in private, it is difficult to formulate any truly conclusive statistics on the prevalence of such behaviors. However, based on studies that have been conducted on the topic, it has been approximated that around 10% of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 18 have experimented with self-injurious behaviors. Additional approximations have stated that one in every 200 girls between the ages of 13 and 19 engages in self-mutilation on a regular basis.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for self-harm

Professionals in the field of mental health believe that there a number of contributing factors working together that can play a role in the onset of self-harming behaviors. Consider the following:

Genetic: Due to the fact that self-harm is often symptomatic of a mental health condition, and mental illnesses are known to run in families, it can be deduced that there is a genetic component to the onset of this type of behavior. Children and adolescents who have family members who struggle with mental illness are therefore believed to be more susceptible to beginning to engage in self-injurious behaviors.

Physical: The brain is made up of neurotransmitters that are responsible for appropriately regulating emotions. When these neurotransmitters become imbalanced, it leaves an individual more susceptible to developing a mental health condition, which can ultimately result in the onset of self-harming behaviors.

Environmental: The environment in which children and adolescents spend a lot of time can have a monumental impact on whether or not they will begin to engage in self-mutilation. Children who are surrounded by environments that are full of chaos may begin to self-harm as a means of gaining control over something because they do not have control over any other aspect of their lives. Additionally, children and adolescents who are subjected to abuse and/or neglect may begin to self-harm because they are able to be in control over the pain that is inflicted on them, rather than leaving that control in the hands of someone else.

Risk Factors:

  • Being female
  • Being in the age group of children, adolescents, and young adults
  • Personal history of depression, anxiety, or other mental health condition
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Experiencing trauma
  • Being the victim of abuse and/or neglect
  • Peer pressure / having friends who self-harm
  • Lacking the ability to regulate one’s emotions
  • Lacking appropriate coping skills
  • Lacking strong, healthy interpersonal relationships and support networks

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of self-harm

The vast majority of people who engage in self-harming behaviors do so in private, oftentimes making it difficult to discern whether or not the behaviors exist. However, there are some warning signs that may indicate that a child or adolescent is purposely inflicting pain onto him or herself. Such warning signs will vary from person to person, but may include the following:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Wearing long-sleeved shirts or long pants, despite warm weather, in an attempt to hide evidence of self-injury
  • No longer participating in activities that were once enjoyed
  • Isolating oneself from family and friends / spending increasingly significant amounts of time alone
  • When asked about noticeable injuries, brushing them off as being “accidents”

Physical symptoms:

  • Frequent scratches, scrapes, or cuts
  • Frequent bruises
  • Patches of missing hair
  • Presence of scabs and scars
  • Unexplained broken bones

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Persistent, uncontrollable thoughts of wanting self-injure
  • Dissociating
  • Inability to control impulses
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Experiencing lapses in memory

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Feelings of helpless / hopelessness / worthlessness
  • Feelings of guilt and shame
  • Feeling angry with or disgusted by oneself
  • Emotional instability
  • Feeling emotionally numb or detached
  • Consistently increasing feelings of anxiety, especially when unable to self-harm


Effects of self-harm

When children and adolescents engage in self-harming behaviors and do not receive treatment, the long-term effects can be detrimental. Examples of such effects can include, but are not limited to:

  • Increased frequency and intensity of these behaviors themselves
  • Increased feelings of disgust, shame, and guilt
  • Isolation from family and friends
  • Relationship discord
  • Academic struggles
  • Developing an addiction to drugs and/or alcohol
  • Consistent, intrusive thoughts about engaging in the behavior
  • Accidental death

In addition, depending upon the method that one uses to injure him or herself, there can be long-term, negative physical consequences as well. Examples of such consequences can include, but are not limited to:

  • Infected wounds
  • Anemia
  • Permanent numbness or weakness in certain parts of the body
  • Permanent tissue damage and scarring
  • Organ damage or multi-organ failure
  • Improper healing of broken bones

Co-Occurring Disorders

Self-harm and co-occurring disorders

The presence of self-harming behaviors is often indicative of the presence of a mental illness. The disorders that are most commonly associated with self-injury in children and adolescents include:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Other anxiety disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Substance use disorders

I feel so much happier and healthier after getting help at Millcreek of Pontotoc.

– A former patient