When people make the statement, "I self-harm," the most common question after that is "why?" But delving into why people self-harm, also known as self-injury or self-mutilation, is complicated. Each individual has their own reasons for self-injury and understanding their self-injury behaviors often means understanding an individual's circumstance.
And to make matters more confusing, many people aren't even sure why they self-injure. In the words of Amy, age 16:1
I was hurting myself for 2 years before I ever told anyone. I think, to begin with, I didn't even know that it was self-harm because I was scratching and biting myself, but then I moved on to cutting myself as well. I was so upset all of the time and the frustrating thing was I didn't even know why. (more on self-injury cutting)
Why Do I Self-Harm: Environmental Factors
Many factors come together when looking at why a person self-mutilates and one of the big ones is stress. People typically begin to self-harm because they are under more stress than they can handle. This stress leads to anxiety and this anxiety becomes overwhelming. This stress might be due to school or work pressure, problems at home or other stresses.
Greg, age 15 talks about how stresses at home helped explain why he self-injured:
My mum and dad split up when I was little so my mum had to bring us up on her own quite a lot . . . She had a boyfriend for a while who I really didn't like, he used to beat her, but he never hurt me in that way . . .
That was probably why I started getting so down and angry all the time. My mates thought I'd started to go boring and so I stopped going out with them as much. Then this one boy started on me after school one day and I ran away. I was so annoyed at myself for being scared again that I went home and punched the wall outside our house.
After that, rumors went around school, and more boys started to wait for me at the end of the day. I hated going to school and I hated myself for not being able to deal with it. So I started to do things to myself to avoid going to school – like swallowing things that would make me sick. And every time that I got really angry, I had to hit something really hard. I started to realize that I was doing lots of things to my body that weren't good for it, but I didn't really know what else to do.
(More self-injury stories)
Understanding Self-Injury: Psychological Issues
Personal, psychological issues may also help people understand why people self-harm. In the case of Madison, age 13, she felt that no one loved her:2
The pressures of friends and boyfriends and family can be too much and the threat of razors and knives can seem to be enough to keep you sane . . . Sometimes it can be hard to believe someone actually loves you until they have a good reason to say something about it. I had this thought stuck in my mind that I wasn't loved. That nobody cared. I became addicted to cutting and burning myself because of these thoughts.
Self-mutilation is often correlated with other mental health problems such as substance use disorders, depression, bipolar disorder and eating disorders. Chronic illness and sexual assault can also be underlying causes of self-harm behaviors.