Causes of Self-Injury, Self-Harm, Self-Mutilation
The causes of self-injury can be confusing. The average person has difficulty understanding the causes and reasons for self harm. After all, they wonder, who would purposefully want to hurt themselves?
The reasons for self-injury, also known as self-harm or self-mutilation, are complex though and not everyone self-harms for the same reason. The causes of self-mutilation likely vary with age. Self-injury behaviors can start before the age of seven or, more commonly, between the ages of 12 and 15. Self-harm behaviors normally end within five years of starting. For many, however, self-injury can last well into adulthood.1
The causes of self-harm are both psychological and environmental in nature. Overall, self-harm can be seen as a way of dealing with stress. (Why I Self-Harm: Why People Self-Injure)
Suicide as a Cause of Self-Injury
It's important to realize that suicidal ideation is rarely a cause of self-injury. The goal of self-harm is to physically injure the self and not to die. In fact, many people use self-injury as a way to avoid suicide. Suicide attempts and self-mutilation behaviors do correlate, however, with those who have self-harmed being much more likely to attempt suicide or have a plan for suicide. The cause of self-injury can really be seen as emotional distress and if this distress is not alleviated, it can result in suicidal behavior. There's more information on self-harm and suicide here.
Environmental Causes of Self-Harm
As the main reasons for self-injury relate to stress, one of the main environmental components of self-harm is the presence of trauma or stress. This may be a past trauma, such as sexual assault, or current stress such as the pressure to succeed.
One of the stressors known to create a risk for self-harm is sexual orientation. Those in a sexual minority group are more likely to self-injure. Specifically, females who identify as bisexual are at a higher risk for self-mutilation.
Psychological Reasons for Self-Mutilation
There are various psychological reasons for self-mutilation but the overwhelming factor is the presence of unmanageable anxiety. This anxiety, be it from trauma, stress or pressure, is so great that the person finds they can't deal with it. The self-injury, then, is a way of releasing or dealing with this chronic anxiety. Self-harm becomes a coping mechanism, albeit a negative one. Self-injury is also commonly used to deal with overwhelming sadness or emotional numbness. (If you're interested in self-injury self-help coping skills, read this.)
The presence of other psychological disorders can also be an indirect cause for self-injury. While a disorder does not specifically cause the behavior, those with certain mental health disorders are at a higher risk. Disorders associated with self-mutilation include:
- Addiction disorders
- Eating disorders
- Posttraumatic stress disorder
- Borderline personality disorder
- Anxiety disorders
People cite other reasons they self-harm, however. These self-harm quotes may provide insight into that. Some other causes of self-injury include desires to:
- Experience a feeling in the face of numbness
- Control the body and mind
- Express feelings or needs
- Distract from other problems
- Create visible and noticeable wounds
- Purify oneself
- Reenact a trauma in order to resolve it
- Protect others from emotional pain
A small number of people also report good feelings and a rush of energy as the reasons for self-harm.
Last Updated: 26 August 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD