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What is Self Injury?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Self-injury is a pathology in which someone inflicts deliberate harm on him or herself, but not with the intent of suicide. This pathology takes a wide range of forms, and it is important to distinguish self-injury from both suicidal behavior and culturally or artistically appropriate activities, such as initiation rituals or tattooing. Women are around four times more likely to commit self harm than men, and self-injury is very common among young people, but the behavior can manifest at all ages.

This behavior typically emerges in response to stress, trauma, or depression. People inflict harm on themselves as a way of coping with situations which they feel no control over, and often they choose hidden sites of their body for their activities so that the self injury is not detected. In some cases, injuries may be more obvious, in which case the self-injury could be viewed as a cry for help, and self-injury can also develop into more serious suicidal behavior, so it is a cause for concern.

There are a wide number of forms of self-injury. People may cut or burn themselves, for example, or pick at their hair, skin, and nails. Some people deliberately ingest poison, engage in highly dangerous behaviors, or attempt to injure themselves by throwing themselves down stairs or hitting themselves with heavy objects. The behavior is often secretive, and injuries may be dismissed as “accidents” if the subject is questioned.

When self-injury becomes chronic, it is known as repetitive self-injury (RSI). In this situation, the patient often has no control over his or her self-injury, but instead feels a compulsion to engage in self harming behavior. In addition to being potentially psychologically harmful, this can also be physically harmful; self-injury can lead to infections and a variety of other health problems.

Patients who engage in such behavior can be treated in a wide variety of ways. As with other psychological conditions, it is important to intervene in a way which is supportive, and non-accusatory. Anti-depressant drugs may be prescribed to help the patient cope with stress, but talk therapy is also strongly encouraged. Some patients also benefit from more strenuous therapy which is designed to change their fundamental behavior patterns, and people may use tricks like promoting more beneficial behavior as an alternative to self-injury, or using a “buddy system” to ensure that the patient always has a friend to call when he or she feels like engaging in self-injury.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By miriam98 — On Jan 07, 2012

@NathanG - It doesn’t make sense. But those who do it are using it to relieve stress, as strange as that might seem.

I personally think that teenage self injury is worse, especially if it’s obvious. This is because it raises the suspicion that the parents may be involved, in a form of child abuse.

If the teenager doesn’t admit he injured himself, how can you prove otherwise? It puts the parents in a difficult position.

By NathanG — On Jan 06, 2012

@David09 - RSI is repetitive self injury? I thought it was repetitive stress injury. Well the acronym can apply to both I suppose. I have the latter, but can’t imagine why anyone would want to ingest poison.

I know some people will engage in bulimia or anorexia or things like that. But I don’t think that they are deliberately trying to hurt themselves; they are just self conscious about their weight, and end up harming their health in the process.

How can you really explain self injury behavior? Is it a form of attention getting? Since when does feeling bad, feel good?

By David09 — On Jan 05, 2012

Sometimes it’s surprising the kinds of people who engage in self injury. I used to think it was people who were down and out and didn’t have a lot of money.

However I saw on television where a famous Hollywood actress admitted that she once cut herself and did drugs. It was a dark period of her life she said.

I don’t know what would cause a well known actress to do such a thing, but she did. Perhaps it was the stress of acting and the pressures that come with stardom. A lot of famous actors get pushed over the edge and become drug addicts.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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