Self-Harm: Symptoms and Causes


By Duane Hewitt

The Mayo Clinic states that self-injury is not meant as a suicide attempt but more so as a harmful way of contending “with emotional pain, intense anger and frustration.”

And there’s a cycle involved where, though there may be a temporary alleviation of the emotional pain that led to the act, it is typically followed by a return to those same painful emotions that caused it, accompanied by guilt and shame.

For those of us who might have witnessed the act or the aftermath, or of seeing someone who might be inclined to self-injury, there are signs to watch for, which can include:

New cuts, scratch marks, bruises, or even bite wounds  Recurrent accounts of accidental injury  Unstable emotional behavior, including unpredictability and impulsivity  Anger, withdrawal, or a ‘lashing out’ behavior  Scars and evidence of self-infliction for which no other excuse seems viable

Arms, legs, and front of the torso are typically the most common parts of the body where injury is done. The type of injury can include cutting, burning, piercing the skin, as well as self-hitting and head-banging, to name some of the more common forms of self-injury.

The causes of self-injury often stems from an inability to deal with psychological pain or difficulty handling intense emotions. Anger, guilt, fear, loneliness, rejection, self-hatred and even confused sexuality can all come into it. The individual might have a need to feel something, even the physical pain they cause, or the act might be a distraction from painful emotions. It can also be a call for help.

Teenagers and young adults are most prone, generally because of developing impulsive and unstable emotions at a time in their maturing years when life and mental health issues come to the forefront and are not handled in a mature, stable manner. Trauma as well as mental, physical, and sexual abuse can often be sources of this pain leading to self-harm.

In worst-case scenarios, patterns of self-injury can become far more serious and even lead to an increased risk of suicide for the individual.

Prevention and cure comes down to compassionate, communicative support. Those near to or seeing adolescents and youth in this situation should bring it to the attention of a teacher, counsellor, school nurse, or other health care provider. With an adult, it may help to cautiously and respectfully approach the topic with them and suggest getting medical or other professional healthcare support. In some cases, it might be suggested that that same individual read and learn about the causes of their problem and what to do about it. But either way, a skilled professional in medicine and healthcare should be notified.

Copyright 2021 Duane Hewitt.

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