Self-Injury Symptoms & Effects

Learn how to recognize the signs, symptoms, and effects of self-harm. Resource Treatment Center provides comprehensive mental health and psychiatric treatment for youth who are suffering from self-harm.

Understanding Self-Harm

Learn about self-harm

When an individual engages in behavior that deliberately causes harm, either by causing a physical injury or intentionally putting oneself in dangerous situations, this is considered self-harm. Also referred to as self-injury, these behaviors can include burning, cutting, or biting oneself, as well as pulling out one’s hair, or banging one’s head against a hard object. Additionally, some less common ways of harming oneself may include drinking harmful substances, such as bleach or other house-hold chemicals. Each individual who self-harms engages in this behavior for his or her own personal reasons. Additionally, unlike the common misconception that self-harm is an attempt to end one’s own life, most individuals engage in this behavior as a means to cope with, as well as release, emotional distress and regain feelings of control. Other individuals will self-harm as a form of self-punishment for feelings of guilt or a way to feel anything at all if they are emotionally numb. No matter the reason for why an individual begins to harm him or herself, the self-injurious behavior needs to be treated so further complications can be prevented.


Self-harm statistics

The act of self-harm is something that is most commonly done in private, which makes it difficult to compile any exact statistics on the true prevalence of how often these behaviors occur or how many people are participating in them. However, results from different studies have shown that approximately 10% of teenagers between the ages of 12 and 19 have experimented with self-mutilation. Additional estimates state that 1 in every 200 girls between the ages of 13 and 19 engage in self-harming behaviors on a regular basis.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for self-harm

There is not one single, simple cause that will cause an individual to begin to self-harm. Generally speaking, the reason that individuals start to engage in these type of behaviors is because they are unable to cope with severe emotional distress or are having a hard time finding their place within society. Additionally, these individuals have a hard time regulating, expressing, or understanding their emotions. Some of the following may also play a role in the development of self-harming behaviors: Genetic: In many cases, self-harm indicates the presence of a mental health disorder and these types of disorders are known to have strong genetic components. This means that those who have family members that are struggling with mental illnesses are at a higher risk for beginning to participate in self-mutilating behaviors themselves. Physical: The brain consists of neurotransmitters that are responsible for appropriately regulating emotions and when these neurotransmitters are not properly balanced, individuals become more vulnerable to developing a mental disorder which, in turn, can lead to the onset of self-harming behaviors. Environmental: The environment surrounding a child or adolescent can have a large impact on whether or not an individual begins to self-harm. For example, individuals who grow up in chaotic or violent homes may turn to self-harm as a way of gaining a sense of control over themselves because they have been unable to control what is going on around them. Risk Factors:

  • Being female
  • Being an adolescent, teen, or young adult
  • Having friends who self-harm
  • Personal history of depression or other mental illness
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Lack of appropriate coping skills
  • Having been physically, sexually, or emotionally abused
  • Experiencing a traumatic event
  • Lacking a strong support system
  • Experiencing the death or loss of a loved one
  • Excessive alcohol or drug use

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of self-harm

For most individuals who self-harm, it is a very private act and they will go to great lengths to hide any scars, bruises, or other injuries, which can make it difficult to identify is someone if hurting themselves. However, there are some warning signs that you can still look out for that may indicate that someone is engaging in self-injury. Some of these signs and symptoms include: Behavioral symptoms:

  • No longer participating in activities that were once highly enjoyed
  • Has frequent accidents
  • Wears long sleeves and pants, even in hot weather
  • Isolating oneself from family and friends
  • Needs to be alone for long periods of time
  • Makes statements of helplessness or worthlessness
  • Keeping sharp objects on hand
  • Difficulties with interpersonal relationships

Physical symptoms:

  • Unexplained wounds or scars
  • Patches of missing hair
  • Frequently has bruises
  • Fresh scrapes or cuts
  • Frequent broken bones

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Having poor impulse control
  • Chronic, uncontrollable thoughts of wanting to harm oneself
  • Having extreme difficulty concentrating and focusing
  • Continually questioning one’s personal identity

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Emotional instability
  • Feeling hopeless, helpless, and worthless
  • Feeling guilty and ashamed
  • Feeling disgusted by oneself
  • Emotionally numb
  • Anxiety
  • Depression


Effects of self-harm

When a person who is harming themselves does not get the treatment that he or she needs, it can cause a number of more serious complications. These long-term effects can be extremely detrimental and may include:

  • Worsening feelings of shame and guilt
  • Increased frequency of the self-harming behaviors
  • Substance abuse or addiction
  • Familial conflict
  • Isolation from family and friends
  • Academic failure
  • Infection from wounds or from sharing tools
  • Permanent scars or disfigurement
  • Severe bleeding
  • Anemia
  • Permanent tissue damage
  • Permanent numbness or weakness in certain parts of the body
  • Improper healing of broken bones
  • Damage to organs or organ failure
  • Death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Self-harm and co-occurring disorders

It is not uncommon for individuals who self-injure to be suffering from a mental illness because, in many cases, this behavior can also be symptomatic of certain mental health disorders. The disorders most commonly associated with self-mutilation include:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Eating disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Other anxiety disorders
  • Substance abuse disorders

I always felt so misunderstood, but at Resource it was like someone finally took the time to get to know me. That made a huge difference. This place helped me so much.