Self-Harm Symptoms, Signs & Effects

Ohio Hospital for Psychiatry offers effective, comprehensive treatment for individuals struggling with self-harm. Learn more about the signs and symptoms of self-harm.

What is Self-Harm?

Learn More About Self-Harm

Self-harming behaviors can be defined as the purposeful and deliberate destruction of a person’s body. The most common forms of self-harm include cutting, burning, punching oneself, banging one’s head against a wall or other hard object, purposely breaking one’s bones, and drinking harmful substances, like bleach or detergent.

One common misconception about self-harm is that people who engage in these behaviors are doing so because they want to end their lives, but this is typically not the case. Another misconception is that people who self-injure are seeking attention. Although either of these could potentially be the reason, most commonly they are not. People who participate in self-mutilation are usually doing so because they are struggling with a deeper, inner pain that they are unable to control. By inflicting physical pain onto themselves, they are able to control what they are feeling. Others may use self-harm as a means of self-soothing or decreasing excessive levels of anxiety. Self-harm has also been known to help a person who is suffering from dissociation find a means of remaining grounded in reality because they are able to feel physical pain.


Statistics of Self-Harm

Due to the fact that self-harm is usually something that people do in private, it is difficult to determine any exact statistics on the prevalence rate of these behaviors. However, experts in the field estimate that approximately 2 million people in the United States purposely hurt themselves in some way. While self-mutilation has historically been documented as being more common in women than it is in men, the number of men participating in such behaviors is believed to be steadily increasing.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and Risk Factors for Self-Harm

There is not any one single cause that leads a person to begin partaking in self-harming behaviors, but rather a combination of factors are believed to play a role in the onset of one feeling the need to begin these behaviors. Examples of these may include:

Genetic: The disorders of which self-harm may be a symptom are believed to have genetic ties. Individuals who have family members who struggle with mental illnesses are at a higher risk of developing a mental illness as well. The severe impact that most of these illnesses have on people may trigger self-mutilating behaviors.

Physical: A disruption or imbalance in the chemicals in the brain that are responsible for regulating emotions are believed to play a role in the disposition that a person has to participate in self-harm.

Environmental: The environment that people are surrounded by has the potential to contribute to the onset of self-injurious acts. People who come from homes that are chaotic, scary, or unpredictable might find solace in the act of harming themselves because it provides them with the opportunity to have control over something. The role that one’s family plays in his or her life can also add to the likelihood that a person may begin to self-harm. People who have not been allowed to express their emotions in a healthy manner may believe that the only way that they are successfully able to communicate those emotions is through the act of self-injuring.

Risk Factors:

  • Severe depression
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Poor regulation of one’s emotions
  • Impulsivity
  • Inability to express emotions in a healthy, productive manner
  • Peer pressure
  • Poor coping skills
  • Experiencing trauma
  • Coping with cultural expectations
  • Being the victim of bullying or harassment
  • Death of a loved one
  • Coming to terms with one’s sexuality
  • Lacking strong interpersonal relationships

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and Symptoms of Self-Harm

The signs and symptoms of self-harm will vary greatly from person to person based on the chosen method of self-harm and the length of time in which he or she has been participating in the behaviors. Examples of possible symptoms that a person who is purposely harming him or herself may be exhibiting include:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Wearing long-sleeved shirts or long pants, even when it is hot outside
  • Spending excessive amounts of time alone
  • Keeping instruments used for self-injury constantly close by
  • No longer participating in activities that were once enjoyed
  • Brushing off any injuries noted by other people as being “accidents”

Physical symptoms:

  • Scars
  • Frequent bruises, cuts, or scratches
  • Patches of missing hair
  • Broken bones

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Having difficulty controlling one’s impulses
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Dissociating
  • Chronic, uncontrollable thoughts of wanting to self-injure

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Feeling helpless
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Feeling worthless
  • Feeling defeated
  • Loneliness
  • Grief
  • Guilt
  • Increased feelings of anxiety when unable to self-harm


Effects of Self-Harm

The long-term effects of self-harm can be devastating for the people participating in the behaviors and can have a negative impact on their loved ones as well. Some of these effects can include:

  • Social isolation
  • Family discord
  • Becoming addicted to substances
  • Delusional thoughts
  • Consistent, obsessive, and intrusive thoughts about the behavior itself
  • Feelings of guilt, shame, and disgust
  • Accidental death

Sadly, self-injuring also has to the potential to result in long-term physical effects as well. Some examples of these physical effects can include:

  • Severe bleeding and anemia
  • Infected wounds
  • Permanent scarring
  • Chronic pain
  • Multi-organ failure
  • Permanent tissue damage
  • Permanent weakness and/or numbness in certain areas of the body
  • Broken bones that do not heal properly

If you recognize the signs and symptoms, or perhaps even witness the effects, it is imperative to get your loved one help and into treatment for self-harm.

Co-Occurring Disorders

Co-Occurring Disorders of Self-Harm

Self-harm is commonly a symptom of a mental illness. The most common co-occurring, comorbid mental disorders that a person who self-injures may be struggling with can include:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Other anxiety disorders
  • Substance abuse

When my friends discovered the self-afflicted cuts on my arm, they urged me to seek help. That was when I discovered Ohio Hospital for Psychiatry. The caring and compassionate staff was able to help me learn healthier ways of coping with my depression, and I am eternally grateful to OHP from saving me from self-harm.

– Cheryl C.