The Truth About Self-Harm and Adults

Self-harm, or non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) to give it its proper term, does not discriminate by age, gender, race or anything else. It is a hidden illness which effects roughly 6% of the population and is hugely misunderstood.

Most may imagine self-harm is done primarily by teenage girls cutting their arms and using it as a cry for help or for attention. This is not the case. At least 35% of those injuring themselves are male and it is thought that somewhere between 15% and 30% are teenagers. That leaves a lot of people who self-injure well into adulthood.

Self-injury can also take many forms, not just cutting the arms. Self-inflicted burns with cigarettes, scalding with hot water, extreme picking of the skin, scratching and hitting oneself to cause bruising are all forms of self-harm.

Self-harm is not a cry for help. People who self-harm go out of their way to hide their scars and harm themselves when they are alone. It is not something they want others to know about and often they feel shame for their actions. For most, self-injury is a way of expressing or managing difficult emotions instead of having to say those feelings out loud. For others it can be a way of expressing self-loathing and can even be a form of self-punishment and can be a way of releasing those negative feelings about themselves.

The reasons for this are thought to be because when someone injures themselves, endorphins (‘happy hormones’) are released into the body causing them to feel better. Another theory is that the positive relief felt once the pain of the injury subsides far outweighs the emotional pain felt before the injury began and the physical pain of the injury itself.

The trouble is that this can become a vicious cycle which is difficult to overcome, and which can carry on beyond teenage years and well into adulthood. It doesn’t resolve the root cause of the emotional pain which leads someone to self-harm, particularly if that emotional pain is also part of a mental health condition. Indeed, self-harming can be a sign that there may be an underlying mental health condition such as depression, anxiety, stress, an eating disorder or even borderline personality disorder. The solution to self-injury may therefore lie in first resolving the underlying mental health condition via appropriate therapy and/or medication.

Self-injury is distressing both for the person doing it and for their friends and loved ones. It is treatable. If you or someone close to you is suffering in silence, please get in touch. Our consultant psychiatrists are highly experienced in treating people who self-harm and the mental health conditions which may be leading someone to take the drastic step of harming themselves.

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