Self-Harm Signs & Symptoms

Not everyone experiences self-harm the same way. Understanding the signs, symptoms and effects of self-harm is an important step toward recovery for your child.

Understanding Self-Harm

Learning about self-harm

When a person causes physical pain or injury to him or herself, it is known as self-harm. Also commonly referred to as self-injury or self-mutilation, self-harm is often symptomatic of a mental health condition and warrants therapeutic intervention in order to prevent lasting and life-threatening results. Those who partake in such behaviors often do so by cutting, burning, scratching, hitting, punching, or scraping their selves. Additionally, some individuals who self-injure will ingest harmful chemicals, break their own bones, or engage in risky behaviors as a means of trying to expel their emotional pain.

A common misconception about people who self-harm is that they are doing it as a means of garnering attention or conveying that they wish to end their own lives. In reality, these individuals are causing physical pain as an unhealthy method for coping with unpleasant feelings and emotions. The lack of coping skills needed to manage stress and turmoil often result in a person beginning to self-harm. Failing to seek mental health treatment for self-harm could, unfortunately, render a person more susceptible to an untimely death.

Family members, friends, and other loved ones who suspect that someone they care for is self-harming should attempt to intervene to prevent a grave outcome. By engaging in mental health treatment, self-harming behaviors and additional symptoms of an existing mental health condition can be cared for in a way that can ultimately prevent the reoccurrence of self-harm. What is important for those who self-injure to know is that healing from dire emotional pain can be achieved.


Self-harm statistics

Since self-injury is something that people attempt to conceal from others, very few statistics are available pertaining to its prevalence. What researchers do know, however, is that self-harm is more common among females than males. Additionally, it is speculated that around 10% of youth between the ages of twelve and eighteen have engaged in some form of self-harm at some point in life. Lastly, it is widely believed by professionals in the field of mental health that most, if not all, people who self-mutilate are also grappling with a form of mental illness.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for self-harm

Experts in the field of mental health agree that when a person is self-injuring, there are a number of causes and risk factors that could have caused that individual to resort to such detrimental behavior. The following briefly explain why and how a person begins to self-mutilate:

Genetic: Individuals with a history of mental illness are at an increased risk for self-mutilation. The reason for this is because there are many mental health conditions that have self-harm as a potential symptom. And since many mental illnesses can be inherited from one’s biological parents, genetics are believed to be at work in this way if a person is partaking in self-injuring behaviors.

Environmental: Certain stressors in an individual’s environment can ultimately cause a person to engage in self-harming behaviors. The susceptibility for such actions can increase substantially if a person lacks the necessary methods for coping and support from others that could otherwise deter self-injury. Those with a personal history of trauma, abuse, neglect, or exposure to ongoing violence or chaos are especially at risk for eventually causing personal physical pain.

Risk Factors:

  • Being female
  • Being exposed to crime and/or violence
  • Family or personal history of substance abuse
  • Personal history of depression or other mental health conditions
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Being the victim of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse and/or neglect
  • Lacking appropriate coping skills
  • Lacking a healthy support network
  • Experiencing the death of a loved one
  • Lack of parental involvement
  • Low self-esteem
  • Peer pressure
  • Experiencing a trauma

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of self-harm

The apparentness of self-harming behaviors is reliant on some factors. The method(s) in which a person self-mutilates and the length of time a person has been engaging in such behaviors can make the signs of self-harm more obvious than others. Family members and loved ones who are concerned that someone they care for is engaging in self-harm should note the presence of the following symptoms and seek mental health services as soon as possible:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants to conceal wounds
  • Declined participation in activities that were once enjoyed
  • Truancy from school
  • Purposely inflicting pain onto oneself
  • Pulling out one’s hair
  • Possessing/hiding instruments used to cause self-harm
  • Engaging in risky behaviors

Physical symptoms:

  • Bruises
  • Scars
  • Broken bones
  • Slow-healing wounds
  • Patches of missing hair
  • Scratches
  • Cuts
  • Scrapes
  • Burns on one’s skin

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Poor impulse control
  • Poor concentration
  • Difficulty with memory
  • Dissociation
  • Derealization (feeling detached from one’s surroundings)
  • Depersonalization (feeling out of body)

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Depressed mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Unstable mood
  • Periods of emotional detachment
  • Agitation
  • Irritability
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Feelings of loneliness
  • Feelings of shame
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Guilty feelings
  • Increased anxiety
  • Low self-esteem


Effects of self-harm

Self-injury can result in a number of risks to an individual’s physical health. The following are likely outcomes if an individual does not cease his or her self-harm:

  • Infection
  • Scarring
  • Bones that have not healed appropriately
  • Anemia
  • Permanent tissue damage
  • Numbness in tissues
  • Vital organ failure
  • Irreversible nerve damage
  • Unstoppable hemorrhaging
  • Accidental death

In addition to the adverse health effects, there are several other consequences that can ensue if a person does not receive care to eliminate the occurrence of self-mutilation:

  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Problems in interpersonal relationships
  • Exacerbated symptoms of a mental health condition
  • Substance abuse
  • Decline in academic functioning
  • Academic failure
  • Development of low self-esteem and/or self-worth
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Attempts at suicide

Co-Occurring Disorders

Self-harm and co-occurring disorders

If you have a loved one who is engaging in self-harming behaviors, it is likely that a mental health condition is present. The following disorders are those that can trigger a person to self-injure or are those that include self-harm as a symptom:

  • Schizophrenia
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Schizoaffective disorder
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Substance use disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Anxiety disorders

I give Southwood a big thanks — they were the help that I have been looking for. The staff was wonderful!

– Former client