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What Causes People To Self-Harm?

Self-harm refers to any intentional act of hurting yourself. These acts can include cutting, burning, hitting, and inserting dangerous objects into yourself. Some experts also argue that certain compulsive behaviors, like substance use or disordered eating, also embody a form of self-harm.

Although it's largely stigmatized, self-harm is common, especially among people with mental illness. Research shows that about 17% of people engage in self-harm at some point during their lifetime. The average age of onset is 13 years old.

But what drives this behavior? And what causes this pattern to be so pervasive? Let's get into some of the common causes.

Desire to Release Emotions

Self-harm often manifests as a way to move away from numbness. Many people report that they would rather feel physical pain than nothing at all. Therefore, self-harm acts as a way of shifting emotional distress into a physical problem.

Emotional expression can be challenging, particularly if you didn't learn this skill during childhood. We all feel sadness, anger, shame, and fear. But if you don't know what to do with it, the feelings can be so overwhelming or intense that you may block them out altogether. But this strategy doesn't stop the emotions. It just pauses and numbs them.

Self-harm is a physical way of revealing emotions. It's a literal expression of the pain the person experiences.


Self-harm can also be a form of punishment. Often, this emerges from a place of low self-esteem and self-worth. If you don't believe you deserve happiness, love, or other benefits, you will seek ways to shame yourself.

For this reason, many people engage in self-harm when they believe they have made a mistake. The mistake triggers anger, embarrassment, and shame.

Self-harm serves as a coping strategy to offset those difficult emotions. Over time, however, this pattern can become entirely destructive. Instead of trying to improve your confidence, self-harm becomes the go-to method for self-sabotage.


Although someone may start self-harming to cope with pain or punish themselves, the pattern can become compulsive quickly. By this, an individual may start to experiences intense urges to self-harm. It may seem like the only way to control those urges is by engaging in the pattern.

This compulsion can mimic other compulsions, like addictions to drugs or alcohol, eating disorders, or behavioral addictions. The pattern typically includes intensified cravings, giving in to the cravings, and then experiencing negative feelings as a result.

Being Under The Influence

Some people self-harm when they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Additionally, they may engage in these behaviors during psychotic episodes.

When someone isn't in a coherent state of mind, their judgment and inhibitions are weakened. They may not be able to distinguish reality from fantasy. Furthermore, their emotions might be intensified- the sadness, anger, or fear may be far more heightened than if the individual was thinking logically.

In some cases, the individual may not even remember self-harming while under the influence. This phenomenon can make it difficult to treat the behavior, especially if they aren't ready to quit using mood-altering substances.

Suicidal Behavior

Self-harm doesn't necessarily mean that someone is suicidal. In fact, most self-harm doesn't result in a suicide attempt.

But it's still important to assess and discuss suicide, especially if you notice that your loved one seems more depressed, withdrawn, or disengaged. You should take any comments or jokes about death seriously. It's a misconception that people don't talk about suicide before attempting it.

Additionally, self-harm can lead to life-threatening consequences. Even if someone doesn't intend to kill themselves, one wrong move can quickly take a turn for the worse.

If you think your loved one may be suicidal, be direct in asking them about what's going on. Avoid sugarcoating the situation. Don't blame them for how they feel or make it personal. Instead, let them know that you are concerned and you want to help them as best you can.

Mental Illness

Mental illness represents a significant risk factor for self-harm. Many people who self-harm have histories of depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, or schizophrenia. Furthermore, there is a strong correlation between self-harm and trauma.

Self-harm itself isn't a mental illness. However, it coincides with the same symptoms associated with many mental illnesses. It can trigger the same feelings of shame and helplessness. Likewise, it can be challenging for loved ones to say or know what to do.

Final Thoughts on the Cases of Self-Harm

Self-harm happens for many reasons, and you must avoid jumping to conclusions. If you suspect someone you know is struggling, be gentle, compassionate, and supportive. Coming across as judgmental or angry will likely cause them to withdraw or react defensively.

At The Mental Health House, we understand the complexity of mental illness and compulsive behaviors. We are here to help you in your recovery. Contact us today to learn more about our approach.

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