March 1st is Self-Harm Awareness Day and marks the beginning of Self Harm Awareness Month. This month is observed in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe. The purpose of Self-Harm Awareness Month is to help eliminate the stigma associated with self-harm so that affected individuals don’t feel scared or intimidated to reach out for help. Various symbols associated with this cause are orange ribbons, having the word “love” written on arms, or the image of a butterfly on their wrist.
What Is Self-Harm?
Self-harm, also sometimes referred to as self-injury, is considered to be any type of intentional injury inflicted on the body – and it is a lot more commonplace than most people think. This type of behavior occurs across gender lines, country of origin, religion, socioeconomic status, race, age, or sexuality. While it is most common in adolescents, adults engage in self-harm as well.
- 30-40% of self-harm is conducted by males
- College students have the highest rates of self-harm (35%), followed by teenagers (15%), and adults (4%)
- Approximately 17% of individuals will self-harm at some point in their lifetime
- The average age self-harm begins is 13
Forms of Self Harm
Self-harm can vary from person to person and is not restricted to one certain action. Some of the most common forms of self-harm include:
- Carving words or symbols in skin
- Excessive scratching
- Burning themselves
- Hitting or punching oneself
- Piercing skin with sharp objects
- Pulling out hair
- Picking at existing wounds
- Drug & alcohol abuse
- Consuming harmful substances that aren’t meant to be consumed (like bleach)
- Eating disorder
- Excessive exercise
The most common sites of physical injury include the hands, wrists, stomach, and thighs. However, since self-harm isn’t always physical, it can be difficult to detect other forms of self-harm.
Why Do People Self Harm?
Self-harm is usually a result of underlying emotional distress caused by things like trauma, social difficulties, or mental illness. In many cases, individuals turn to self-harm as a coping method to create a sense of control they might not otherwise possess regarding a situation. In other cases, it might serve as a replacement for those unable (or unwilling) to properly express their feelings. This is known as emotion dysregulation and is common with people of disenfranchised groups such as queer individuals, Native Americans, and veterans.
Self-harm has a close correlation with mental illness, but contrary to popular belief, it is not only associated with Borderline Personality Disorder. Individuals with conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, PTSD, anxiety, etc. also have an increased likelihood of engaging in self-harming behavior. However, it is not exclusive to these individuals and also occurs in individuals without any mental illness at all.
The Big ‘S’ Word: Suicide
One major misconception about self-harm is that these individuals are suicidal. Sometimes these self-inflicted injuries can lead to this unfortunate circumstance, but studies have found self-harm is actually undertaken as a means to avoid suicide. This type of self-harm is known as nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI).
However, repeated or long-term self-harm has shown to lead to an increased likelihood of suicidal behavior later on. A study reported in Journey of Adolescent help showed that those students who self-injured were 3.4 times more likely to attempt suicide. Even in the instance that a suicide attempt doesn’t occur, self-harming individuals tend to lead to higher instances of suicidal thoughts.
The Intersection of Self-Harm and Substance Abuse
Self-harm is very clearly a cry for help. While this type of behavior is impulsive and usually not intended to be fatal, self-harm can quickly become dangerous. Ultimately, self-harm is a coping method (or more accurately, a lack thereof) used as an outlet for dealing with pain, trauma, and stress. It’s not unlike turning to drugs or alcohol and as is the case with both. Substance abuse of any kind is not only a kind of self-harm itself but can develop as a result of it. Regardless of which occurred first, dual diagnosis treatment can help.