Causes & Effects of Self-Harm

No one experiences self-harm the same way as someone else. Understanding the signs, symptoms and side effects of self-harm is a key component toward starting the recovery journey.

Understanding Self-Harm

Learn about self-harm

Commonly misjudged as an attempt or attempts at suicide or as a way of getting the attention of others, self-harm is a serious symptom indicating that an individual is struggling with a mental health condition. With the potential of having lasting and even permanent effects on a person’s life, self-harm, also known as self-injury or self-mutilation, occurs when a person intentionally inflicts pain and physical injury upon him or herself as a way of coping. And because the possible effects can be life-threatening, treatment is often necessary in eradicating this dangerous and destructive self-harming behavior.

Pinching, cutting, burning, tearing skin, biting, pulling out hair, not allowing wounds to heal properly, hitting or punching oneself, and running into things are all examples of how people who self-harm cause personal injury. Additionally, some people who self-harm resort to purposely breaking their own bones or ingesting harmful and toxic substances. This behavior often occurs in response to emotional pain or as a means of feeling like one has control over his or her stress and tension. After the harm is perpetrated, these individuals often feel pangs of guilt, shame, and remorse. These feelings increase anxiety which leads to further self-harm, and the pattern repeats on a seemingly endless cycle of self-destruction. Treatment and interventions are available and can give self-injurers the opportunity to develop healthy coping skills so as to minimize the detrimental risks associated with self-harm.


Self-harm statistics

Because individuals who self-injure do so in private and away from prying eyes, it is difficult to know how many people engage in self-harming behaviors. However, research has concluded that an estimated one in five females and one in seven males self-mutilate.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for self-harm

The following are commonly agreed upon causes and risk factors that experts believe trigger the onset of self-harming behaviors:

Genetic: Often serving as an unhealthy coping mechanism to handle unpleasant symptoms, self-harm usually infers that a person is wrestling with a mental health disorder. Being that mental illnesses, like depression and anxiety, are known to be heritable, it can be concluded that if a person has a genetic predisposition to certain mental illnesses, there is a greater likelihood that a person could begin self-harming as a means of coping. Especially for those whose moods are not appropriately regulated on a neurological level, there is a greater chance that self-mutilation could occur following anxiety-provoking stimuli.

Physical: A number of mental illnesses manifest due to neurochemical imbalances in the brain. When these imbalances occur, an individual may begin to self-injure when he or she deduces that there is no other way of regulating his or her mood or emotions appropriately when symptoms of a mental illness start to adversely affect his or her functioning.

Environmental: Environmental influences that bring about anxious feelings in a person can make an individual more susceptible to considering self-harm as a means of coping. Chaotic home, school, and/or work environments, in addition to situations in which a person is exposed to trauma, can all lead a person to self-mutilate if healthy coping skills and an adequate support network are not in place.

Risk Factors:

  • Family history of mental health conditions
  • Having a preexisting mental illness
  • Experiencing trauma or having a history of trauma exposure
  • Lack of impulse control
  • Having subpar coping skills
  • Having unstable mood / emotions
  • Being confused about one’s sexuality
  • Losing a loved one or friend to death
  • Having an inadequate support system

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of self-harm

In some cases, it is not always obvious that a person is self-harming. Self-mutilation is often done in private and concealed from friends and loved ones so as not to garner attention for this kind of behavior. But for some, the signs and symptoms may be apparent depending on the means in which a person is self-injuring, where the person is causing harm on his or her person, and the length of time the person has been engaging in this kind of behavior. If you suspect that a friend or loved one is self-harming, consider if he or she is presenting with any of the following:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Social isolation
  • Wearing long sleeved shirts and pants when it is warm outside in order to cover injuries
  • Excusing injuries as accidents
  • Declined interest in things once enjoyed

Physical symptoms:

  • Bald spots
  • Bruises
  • Scrapes
  • Cuts
  • Burns
  • Scratches
  • Unexplainable broken bones

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Intrusive thoughts about self-harming
  • Detached feeling from surroundings
  • Poor impulse control
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Lack of focus

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Feelings of worthlessness / helplessness / hopelessness
  • Increased guilt
  • Feeling lonely
  • Feeling defeated by even small undertakings
  • Anxious feelings when one is not able to self-injure


Effects of schizophrenia

  • Because self-harming behaviors are so destructive, a number of adverse effects can occur as a result. If treatment is not sought to cease these behaviors, the following could occur:
    • Hemorrhage
    • Anemia
    • Permanent damage to tissues or scarring
    • Nerve damage
    • Infection
    • Bones that do not heal properly
    • Vital organ damage
    • Organ failure
    • Accidental death

    When a person is harming him or herself, friends and family often become concerned. In addition to mounting worry, relationships could suffer in the long run and additional risks to the individual’s health and well-being could be at stake. For example, the following are possible outcomes if a person continues self-harming:

    • Increased risk of abusing drugs and/or alcohol
    • Discord among friends and loved ones
    • Social withdrawal or isolation
    • Intrusive thoughts about self-harm

Co-Occurring Disorders

 Self-harm and co-occurring disorders

The presence of self-harm often indicates that a person is suffering from a mental illness. The mental health conditions in which self-harm could be symptomatic of are:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Substance use disorders
what past clients say

StoneCrest actually saved my life at a time that I didn't think it was worth living for. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for this place! Thank you!

– A former client
Marks of Quality Care
  • Mental Health America Bell Seal for Workplace Mental Health 2023 - Gold Recipient
  • MPRO Governor's Award of Excellence 2017-2019
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
  • The Joint Commission (JCAHO) Gold Seal of Approval