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Self-Injury and Associated Mental Health Conditions

Mood Disorders

Self-injury is seen in patients who suffer from major depressive illness and from bipolar disorder. It is not exactly clear why this is so, although all three problems have been linked to deficiencies in the amount of serotonin available to the brain. It is important to separate the self-injury from the mood disorder; people who self-injure frequently come to learn that it is a quick and easy way of defusing great physical or psychological tension, and it is possible for the behavior to continue after the depression is resolved. Care should be taken to teach patients alternative ways to cope with distressing feelings and over-stimulation.

Both major depression and bipolar disorder are enormously complex diseases; for a thorough education on depression, go to The Depression Resources List or Depression.com. Another good source of information about depression is the newsgroup alt.support.depression, its FAQ, and the associated web page, Diane Wilson's ASD Resources page.

To find out more about bipolar disorder, try The Pendulum Resource Page, presented by members of one of the first mailing lists created for bipolar people.

Eating Disorders

Self-inflicted violence is often seen in women and girls with anorexia nervosa (a disease in which a person has an obsession with losing weight, dieting, or fasting, and as a distorted body image -- seeing his/her skeletal body as "fat") or bulimia nervosa (an eating disorder marked by binges where large amounts of food are eaten followed by purges, during which the person attempts to remove the food from her/his body by forced vomiting, abuse of laxatives, excessive exercise, etc).

There are many theories as to why SI and eating disorders co-occur so frequently. Cross is quoted in n Favazza (1996) as saying that the two sorts of behavior are attempts to own the body, to perceive it as self (not other), known (not uncharted and unpredictable), and impenetrable (not invaded or controlled from the outside. . . . [T]he metaphorical destruction between body and self collapses [ie, is no longer metaphorical]: thinness is self-sufficiency, bleeding emotional catharsis, bingeing is the assuaging of loneliness, and purging is the moral purification of self. (p.51)

Favazza himself favors the theory that young children identify with food, and thus during the early stages of life, eating could be seen as a consuming of something that is self and thus make the idea of self-mutilation easier to accept. He also notes that children can anger their parents by refusing to eat; this could be a prototype of self-mutilation done to retaliate against abusive adults. In addition, children can please their parents by eating what they are given, and in this Favazza sees the prototype for SI as manipulation.

He does note, though, that self-injury brings about a rapid release from tension, anxiety, racing thoughts, etc. This could be a motivation for an eating-disordered person to hurt him/herself -- shame or frustration at the eating behavior leads to increased tension and arousal and the person cuts or burns or hits to obtain quick relief from these uncomfortable feelings. Also, from having spoken to several people who both have an eating disorder and self-injure, I think it's quite possible that self-injury offers some an alternative to the disordered eating. Instead of fasting or purging, they cut.

There haven't been many laboratory studies probing the link between SI and eating disorders, so all of the above is speculation and conjecture.

Visit our Eating Disorders section here.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Self-injury among those diagnosed with OCD is considered by many to be limited to compulsive hair-pulling (known as trichotillomania and usually involving eyebrows, eyelashes, and other body hair in addition to head hair) and/or compulsive skin picking/scratching/excoriation. In the DSM-IV, though, trichotillomania is classified as an impulse-control disorder, and OCD as an anxiety disorder. Unless the self-injury is part of a compulsive ritual designed to ward off some bad thing that would otherwise happen, it should not be considered a symptom of OCD. The DSM-IV diagnosis of OCD requires:

  1. the presence of obsessions (recurrent and persistent thoughts that are not simply worries about everyday matters) and/or compulsions (repetitive behaviors that a person feels a need to perform (counting, checking, washing, ordering, etc) in order to stave off anxiety or disaster);
  2. recognition at some point that the obsessions or compulsions are unreasonable;
  3. excessive time spent on obsessions or compulsions, reduction of quality of life due to them, or marked distress due to them;
  4. the content of the behaviors/thoughts is not confined to that associated with any other Axis I disorder currently present;
  5. the behavior/thoughts not being a direct result of medication or other drug use.

The current consensus seems to be that OCD is due to a serotonin imbalance in the brain; SSRI's are the drug of choice for this condition. A 1995 study of self-injury among female OCD patients (Yaryura-Tobias et al.) showed that clomipramine (a tricyclic antidepressant known as Anafranil) reduced the frequency of both compulsive behaviors and of SIB. It is possible that this reduction came about simply because the self-injury was a compulsive behavior with different roots than SIB in non-OCD patients, but the study subjects had much in common with them -- 70 percent of them had been sexually abused as children, they showed the presence of eating disorders, etc. The study strongly suggests, again, that self-injury and the serotonergic system are somehow related.

Visit our OCD section here.


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Last Updated: 01 April 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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