Self-Harm Causes, Symptoms & Signs

Erlanger Behavioral Health Hospital offers high-quality services and support for adults and senior adults who are struggling with self-harm. Located in Chattanooga, TN, Erlanger is a leading provider of self-harm treatment.

Understanding Self-Harm

Learn about self-harm

Although often taboo and misunderstood, self-harm is a very dangerous mental health concern. Self-harm occurs when an individual purposefully inflicts pain on themselves, often through cutting, burning, biting, or scratching. A common misconception is that individuals who self-harm are suicidal, but that is not always the case.

Individuals who self-harm mostly do so to seek relief from negative feelings and/or to gain a sense of control of their lives when they feel completely out of control. Furthermore, for the individual, self-harm can also be a way to physically see and experience emotional pain or turmoil. Emotional pain can be hard to express or comprehend, so being able to experience that pain in a physical way can provide a sense of relief or comfort.

If you or someone you care about is struggling with self-harm, know that it doesn’t have to remain a daily battle. Treatment for self-harm is readily available and can include time in an inpatient facility, outpatient sessions, meetings with a counselor, or other supports.


Statistics about self-harm

Self-harm is a growing concern in the United States. According to Mental Health America:

  • Upward of 4% of adults in the U.S. self-harm.
  • High school- and college-age individuals are more at risk, with approximately 15-35% of individuals engaging in self-harm.

Cutting one’s skin, or “cutting,” is the most common method of self-harm, used by 70-90% of individuals who self-harm.

Causes & Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for self-harm

The causes and risk factors for self-harm can vary greatly. However, some of the most common include:

  • Having a family member who has been diagnosed with a mental illness, even though self-harm itself is not considered a mental illness
  • Lacking positive coping skills
  • Being in a stressful environment at home or at work
  • Being a female
  • Having poor impulse control
  • Being the victim of abuse or neglect
  • Having low self-esteem

Signs & Symptoms

Symptoms of self-harm

Symptoms of self-harm are not always easy to recognize. For most individuals, self-harm is done behind closed doors and in private, and the results of self-harm are often covered up. That said, here are some signs and symptoms to look for if you suspect that someone you care about is engaging in self-harm:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Refusing to go to school
  • Taking frequent days off from work
  • Isolating oneself from family and friends
  • Losing interest in activities that they once enjoyed
  • Consistently wearing long pants or long-sleeved shirts, even when it’s hot outside
  • Pulling out one’s own hair
  • When asked about injuries or markings, claiming that they are the result of an accident

Physical symptoms:

  • Broken bones
  • Burn marks on the skin
  • Patches of missing hair
  • Scarring and/or frequent bruising
  • Consistent cuts, scrapes, and scratches
  • Wounds that never seem to heal

Mental symptoms:

  • Finding it hard to concentrate
  • Losing the ability to control one’s own impulses
  • Periods of emotional detachment
  • Emotional instability
  • Feelings of shame
  • Feelings of hopelessness and/or helplessness
  • Feelings of agitation and irritability
  • Growing intensity of anxiety, especially when one is not able to self-harm
  • Feeling depressed


Effects of self-harm

If left untreated, self-harm can affect a person both physically and mentally. Some of the lasting effects of this dangerous mental health concern can include:

  • Physical complications, including severe injuries and infections
  • Organ damage and/or failure
  • Tissue and nerve damage leading to permanent numbness/weakness in parts of the body
  • Scarring
  • Decline in performance in school and/or at work
  • Issues in personal relationships
  • Social withdrawal
  • Developing a substance use issue
  • The onset of additional mental health concerns
  • Accidental suicide

Struggling with self-harm does not need to remain a way of life. There are well-trained counselors and therapists who are ready and willing to help. It’s possible to leave the pain, guilt, and shame of self-harm behind and welcome a new, healthy life.

Co-Occurring Disorders

Common co-occurring disorders among people who struggle with self-harm

If an individual is battling self-harm, they may also be diagnosed with a co-occurring disorder. Some common co-occurring disorders among people who self-harm include:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Substance use disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Schizophrenia
Marks of Quality Care
  • The Joint Commission (JCAHO) Gold Seal of Approval