Self-Harm Signs, Symptoms & Effects

Understanding the signs, symptoms, and possible effects of co-occurring self-harm can be an important first step on the path toward improved health. Sierra by the Sea in Newport Beach, California, is proud to be a source of accurate and relevant information about the impact of co-occurring self-harm.

Understanding Self-Harm

Learn about co-occurring self-harm

Self-harm is a clinical term that describes a variety of different behaviors, all of which involve intentionally harming your own body to cope with severe anger, emotional pain, or other overwhelming emotions. Self-harm is not a mental health disorder, but it is often the symptom of an untreated behavioral health condition such as bipolar disorder, depression, or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Common forms of self-harm include cutting or burning your own skin, pulling out your own hair, picking at scabs to keep them from healing properly, drinking dangerous liquids, hitting your head against a wall or other hard surface, or trying to break your own bones.

Self-harm is not a suicidal behavior, and individuals who engage in it are not doing so in an effort to end their own lives. That can still be a consequence, though, as self-harming behaviors can be unintentionally fatal, and those who harm themselves may be at an increased risk for suicidal thoughts.

Some individuals engage in self-harm due to a psychiatric condition or in an ill-advised attempt to establish control in what otherwise feels like a topsy-turvy existence. Others might do this as a means of self-punishment or as a way to provide physical evidence of emotional pain and suffering.

No matter the reason, those who engage in self-harm need effective professional care as soon as possible. With the proper type and level of help, you or your loved one can address the underlying cause that pushed you into this pattern of self-harm and begin to establish healthier behaviors that lead to a safer and more fulfilling lifestyle.


Statistics about self-harm

The National Institute of Mental Health reports the following statistics about self-harm in the United States:

  • About 6% of adults report a history of self-harm, which is approximately one-third the rate of adolescents (15%-20%).
  • Most assume that self-harm is more common in women, but studies find equivalent rates of the behavior between men and women.
  • Methods of self-harm differ between genders: Women are more likely to use cutting, while men are more likely to use burning or hitting.
  • Self-harm appears to be more common among people who report nonheterosexual orientations, and more common among Caucasians than non-Caucasians.

Causes & Risk Factors for Self-Harm

Potential causes of self-harm

Self-harm often starts in the preteen or early teen years when emotions run high and new experiences are commonplace. But it can begin at any age depending on the individual. Many influences can contribute to a person’s urge to self-harm, including:

  • Having friends who self-harm
  • History of neglect or unstable family environment
  • History of sexual, physical, or emotional abuse
  • Frequent social isolation
  • Prior mental health concerns
  • History of substance use

Signs & Symptoms of Self-Harm

Symptoms of self-harm

The signs and symptoms of self-harm can differ considerably for each individual depending on factors such as age and personality, the specific type of self-harm that they’ve been engaging in, and whether the self-harm is an underlying indicator of a mental health condition. Generally, the most common signs and symptoms include:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • No longer participating in activities that were once enjoyable
  • Deception about whereabouts and lying about activities or injuries
  • Social withdrawal from friends and family
  • Participating in violent or reckless activities
  • Acting out impulsively or unpredictably
  • Wearing long sleeves or pants in an attempt to hide self-inflicted harm

Physical symptoms:

  • Scars, some of which may occur in visible patterns
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Fresh cuts, bruises, scratches, and other wounds
  • Significant increase or decrease in appetite
  • Areas of missing hair
  • Impaired motor skills
  • Multiple instances of broken bones
  • Significant weight loss or weight gain

Mental symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Mood swings
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Inability to maintain focus
  • Depression
  • Constant sense of shame or guilt
  • Explosive outbursts of anger
  • Feeling of worthlessness and hopelessness

Effects of Self-Harm

The negative impact of co-occurring self-harm

The injuries associated with self-harm are not the only negative effects an individual might experience because of these behaviors. Without receiving timely, effective care for self-harming behaviors, you may also experience negative outcomes such as:

  • Serious physical injuries
  • Damaged relationships with friends or loved ones
  • Onset or worsening of symptoms of a mental health condition or substance use disorder
  • Trouble keeping up at work or in school
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Suicide attempts
  • Accidental death due to self-inflicted injuries

While these outcomes are among the most common for those engaging in self-harm, they are not guaranteed. If you or a loved one is showing signs of self-harming behavior, seeking proper professional care can help reduce any negative effects already incurred and eliminate the possibility of damaging long-term outcomes. Getting the help that you need can allow you to regain control of your life and set you up to experience a happier, healthier future.

Co-Occurring Disorders

Common co-occurring disorders among people who develop self-harm

Self-harm is not a mental health disorder, but it can often be the symptom of one. The following is a list of the behavioral health disorders that can lead a person to engage in self-harm:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Eating disorders
  • Substance use disorders
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Recovering from substance use disorders is a challenging journey that feels more doable in an environment that tends to each individual’s complex needs and strengths. Our goal is to foster a treatment experience that is built on compassion, hope, and caring, and fueled by excellence in the provision of evidence-based and trauma-informed care.

– - Anonymous