Misconceptions About Self-Harm

By: Morgan Caudill (@mncaudill)


Content warning: self-harm


Self-harm is the act of deliberately causing harm to oneself either by causing a physical injury, putting oneself in dangerous situations and/or self-neglect. It has many forms and is often accompanied by a mental disorder. There are many misconceptions surrounding self-harm: that it’s only cutting, that it’s done with suicidal intentions, and that its attention seeking, however, none of these are the case.

Self-harm is not just cutting. While cutting is one of the forms of self-harm, it is not the only. It takes many forms and also includes burning, biting, substance abuse, head banging/hitting, picking, scratching, self-neglect, and self-poisoning among other behaviors.

Those who self-harm do so without suicidal intentions. Instead, it is used as a coping mechanism to deal with emotional distress. There are a variety of reasons that people self-harm. An individual who self-harms may want to regain control of what they are feeling, punish themselves for something they feel guilty about, or use it to express emotions they have trouble communicating them to others. People who self-harm may go on to attempt suicide but it is not due to the self-harm itself, it is due to whatever is causing the emotional distress.

Many people believe self-harm is an attention seeking behavior. In reality, many of those who self-harm go to great lengths to hide their injuries. People are often ashamed and will hide under clothing, makeup, jewelry, and excuses (“my cat did it” or “I burned myself cooking” for example). For some, self-harm is a cry for help because they don’t know how else to communicate their emotions. It should not be ignored or written off as “attention seeking”.

There is no way to measure self-harm. The seriousness of the injury does not correspond to the seriousness of the problem. Someone who cuts should not be seen as more troubled than someone who scratches. It is unfair to treat one person more seriously because all forms of self-harm are dangerous behaviors and all need help.

Some signs and symptoms may be scars, fresh cuts or bruises, keeping sharp objects around, wearing long clothing in hot weather, feelings of hopelessness or lack of purpose.

If an individual shows signs of self-harm it is often co-occurring with a mental disorder. These disorders may include borderline personality disorder, major depressive disorder, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative disorders, and others.

It is not just prevalent in teens. People of all ages self-harm, even children as young as six have been observed in self-harming behavior. In a survey conducted by the National Self-harm Network (NSHN):

  •     9.5% of participants were under 16
  •     50.3% of participants were 17-25
  •     21.7% of participants were 26-34
  •     12.5% of participants were 35-44
  •     5.9% of participants were 45 to 54
  •     0.5% of participants were 55-64
  •     0% of participants were above 65

It is important to remember that self-harm is not the problem. It is a coping mechanism to other issues. Recovery is not possible until these other issues are addressed. If they aren’t an individual is likely to relapse back into their self-destructive behavior.

For those struggling with self-harm, there are plenty of resources and alternatives available. Some safe alternatives include drawing or painting on the body, peeling glue off your hands, rubbing ice cubes on the body, putting on fake tattoos, and ripping paper.

If you know someone who self-harms and decide to approach them about their behavior please remember to be patient, understanding, and don’t push too much for the information. Recovery is difficult but it is possible with the right support.

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