What is Self-Injury, Self-Harm, Self-Mutilation?
Definition of Self-injury
Self-injury, also known as self-harm or self-mutilation, is defined as an act wherein someone deliberately hurts or injures themselves. Self-injury is most often used as a coping mechanism and is not an attempt at suicide. The practice is not limited to teens. Self-harm in adults also takes place and is not unusual.
It's a perplexing phenomenon with many names: self-injury, self-harm, self-mutilation, self-inflicted violence, self-cutting, and self-abuse to name some. Those who come across it - family members, friends, supporters - even many professionals - struggle to understand why people self-harm, and find the behavior disturbing and puzzling. Recent reports imply that it is reaching 'epidemic proportions,' particularly among young people. Furthermore, research suggests that it is a frequent companion to eating disorders, alcohol abuse and drug abuse, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, and dissociative disorders. Those caught in its clutches claim that self-injury is difficult to stop due to its highly addictive nature, or say they are reluctant to try because it helps them 'feel better,' 'more in control,' 'more real,' or simply 'it keeps them alive.'
- Jan Sutton, author "Healing the Hurt Within: Understand Self-Injury and Self-Harm, and Heal the Emotional Wounds"
What is Self-injury?
Self-injury is a way of dealing with very strong emotions. For some people, self-harm gives the relief that crying may provide for the rest of us. Some people who engage in self-mutilation feel they can't control highly angry and aggressive emotions. They become afraid that they may hurt someone, so they turn their aggression inwards to get relief.
People who self-harm may be defined as attention seekers. However, a person who engages in self-injury may believe this is the only way to communicate their distress. Attention-seeking may actually be their last motivation, as self-mutilation can be a hidden problem that goes on for years. Self-harming purely for attention is one of the big myths about self-injury.
Self-injury may start as a spur-of-the-moment outlet for anger and frustration (such as punching a wall) and then develop into a major way of coping with stress that, because it remains hidden, generates more stress. (read Cutting: Self-Mutilating to Release Emotional Stress)
The severity of self-harm doesn't necessarily relate to the severity of a person's underlying problems. Usually, as time passes, one of the effects of self-harm is that the person who is self-injuring becomes more accustomed to the pain they inflict on themselves and so they harm themselves more severely to get the same level of relief.
This spiral can lead to permanent injury and serious infections.
Self-Harm is Not Defined as Attempting Suicide
It's important to make a distinction between self-harm and attempted suicide, though people who self-mutilate often go on to attempt suicide.
In the case of attempted suicide, the harm caused is uncertain and possibly even invisible, such as in the case of ingesting pills. By contrast, in self-harm, the degree of harm is clear, predictable and often highly visible; such as in the case of cutting or burning.
Self-mutilation is also different than activities that happen to harm. Many people indulge in behavior that's harmful to themselves, such as smoking or drinking to excess, but people don't smoke to damage themselves – harm is an unfortunate side-effect. The reason they smoke is for pleasure, whereas people who self-injure intend to hurt themselves.
Last Updated: 26 August 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD