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Self-Injury Explained

Self-injury is deliberate harm inflicted on a person's own body. It may include cutting or burning the skin, preventing wounds from healing, slamming fists or other parts of the body against hard objects or pulling out hair. Self-injury is an unhealthy way to cope with painful feelings like anger, anxiety, sadness, depression, emptiness, guilt and self-hatred. It can become addictive, and the deeper the involvement, the more difficult it is for a person to stop. If you or someone you know is causing self-harm, help is available.

Why people self-injure

People who harm themselves are mostly trying to relieve emotional pain or give themselves something to focus on besides their problems. Some use self-injury to:

  • Feel in control.
  • Feel something other than emptiness.

Self-injury may make the person feel better temporarily, but it doesn't solve the problem and could lead to an endless cycle of self-abuse. It often begins in the teen years when conflict, rejection, loneliness and peer pressure can be intense. Underlying reasons may include the following:

  • Suffered abuse as a child
  • Is conflicted over personal identity or sexuality
  • Trying to cope with loss or trauma

Signs of self-injury

It can be difficult to know when a person is hurting him or herself, since the person is likely to hide it out of shame or guilt. Some red flags include:

  • Fresh wounds or scars, possibly caused by burns or cuts, especially on the wrists, arms, thighs or chest.
  • Blood stains on clothes, towels or bedding, and on tissues found in the garbage.
  • Sharp objects in the person's belongings, such as razors, knives or glass shards.
  • Long sleeves or long pants worn regularly, even in the summer.
  • Claims of frequent accidents or mishaps.
  • A significant amount of time spent alone, especially in the bathroom or bedroom.

Consequences of self-injury

Self-injury can become addictive. Other possible consequences include:

  • Worsening of painful feelings that self-injury temporarily relieves.
  • Infection, either from wounds or from sharing cutting tools.
  • Life-threatening blood loss if major blood vessels are accidentally cut.
  • Permanent scars or disfigurement.
  • Untreated underlying problems, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Although self-injury isn't a suicide attempt, a person's familiarity with inflicting pain on the body can increase suicide risk if the underlying distress continues or becomes worse.

What you can do

If you've been harming yourself and are ready to get help, do the following:

  • Confide in someone you can trust.
  • Consider talking with a school nurse or a teacher if you're not ready to tell your parents.
  • Talk with your chaplain or your primary care manager at the military treatment facility.
  • Visit the Self Injury Foundation to learn more.

If you're the parent of a teenager you suspect is self-injuring, try the following:

  • Bring it up in a caring, non-confrontational way.
  • Try not to be judgmental or critical. Threats and ultimatums may only increase the risk of further self-injury.
  • Visit the Self Injury Foundation's questions and answers for parents to learn more.

Military OneSource does not provide medical counseling services for issues such as depression, substance abuse, suicide prevention or post-traumatic stress disorder. This article is intended for informational purposes only. Military OneSource can provide referrals to your local military treatment facility, TRICARE or another appropriate resource.

If you need immediate help or are experiencing a crisis, contact the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1.