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What is self-injury?

Self-injury is the act of causing deliberate harm to one’s body. It can have many other names, including self-harm, self-mutilation, self-abuse, wrist cutting and para-suicide. It often affects people with depression and compulsive disorders.

Typical methods of self-injury include:
  • Cutting, usually with razor blades or knives
  • Scratching with finger nails or safety pins
  • Hair pulling and plucking (trichotillomania)
  • Burning with physical heat
  • Causing chemical burns with caustic substances
  • Hitting with the fists, often to the legs or chest
  • Pinching, either repeatedly or until bruising occurs
  • Gnawing at flesh
  • Biting until blood drawn or bruising occurs
  • Head banging
  • Poisoning by ingesting toxic substances
  • Wound interference, preventing cuts from healing
  • Medication abuse, without intending to die

Facts and statistics

Because self-injury tends to be a very private thing, it is difficult to say exactly how many people are affected. Some experts claim that as many as 1 in 10 teenagers self-injure. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the problem is far more common in females than males, with approximately seven times more women than men affected.
Why do people self-injure?

Self-injury has nothing to do with seeking attention. Indeed, it is something usually done in private and the sufferer feels ashamed on their actions. Like starving or purging, self-injury is a way of regaining some control in the individual’s life, even if only for a brief period of time.

Somebody who self-injures is typically under a lot of stress and tension. It is not always done out of self-hatred, but is a way of relieving the stress. Some people, particularly those with depression, say that self-injuring is the only way they can feel more alive because they are so numb inside.

When the sufferer self-injures it does not necessarily mean they are suicidal. Suicide, or contemplating suicide, is a very different thing from self-injury.

Suicide attempts

Eating disorders as a method of self-injuring

Eating disorders themselves can be a method of self-injuring. This is not usually the case at the onset of the eating disorder but, as time goes by, the individual becomes caught up in a cycle of negativity and low self-esteem. Many bulimics deliberately make time in their day for binging and purging because, like self-injury, it offers them a release mechanism. Similarly, anorectics may punish themselves by refusing to eat or drink for a certain length of time or by over-exercising.

What is the treatment?

Psychological treatment aims to get to the root of the problem by exploring the possible cause(s) behind the sufferer’s feelings. Self-injury is an expression of inner depression, anxiety and turmoil. There are reasons for these feelings and, like all psychological problems, professional treatment can be very effective.