Causes & Effects of Self-Harm

No one experiences self-harm the same way as someone else. Understanding the signs, symptoms and side effects of self-harm is a key component toward starting the recovery journey.

Understanding Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Learn about self-harm

Self-harm, also known as self-injury or self-mutilation, occurs when an individual experiences overwhelming anxiety or some other inner turmoil and resorts to causing physical pain to one’s self. Commonly seen as burns, bite marks, cuts, scratches, or bruises that appear to have no logical origin, self-injury often suggests that an individual is battling a mental health condition or condition. Children and adolescents are especially vulnerable to engaging in this type of self-destructive behavior as they lack the necessary coping skills that would otherwise assist them in effectively managing stress or overwhelming feelings.

Sadly, self-harming behaviors can worsen over time and could increase a person’s likelihood of developing ideations of suicide or making attempts to end his or her own life. Beneficial options for care are available and can help those who self-mutilate learn new methods for coping while receiving treatment for any and all mental illnesses that could be present at the same time. By seeking treatment for self-harm, children and adolescents can ultimately acquire the tools and resources needed to maintain healthy emotional wellbeing that can assist them in developing into healthy, well-adjusted adults.


Self-harm statistics

Further research is needed to accurately report prevalence rates of self-injury. However, some research estimates that more females engage in this form of unhealthy coping when compared to males who report self-mutilation. Specific statistics state that one in every five females self-harm, while one in every seven males do. What is known, though, is that individuals who intentionally inflict pain upon their person are likely battling a mental health disorder and need treatment in order address this life-threatening symptom.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for self-harm

Experts in the field of mental health agree that a person’s genes, physiological composition, and environment can influence whether or not an individual self-harms. In addition to other risk factors, the following are elaborations on this belief and explain how and why a person could be vulnerable to self-injury:

Genetic: Self-harm, itself, cannot be inherited from one’s biological parents. However, the mental illnesses of which self-injury is symptomatic of can be passed on from one generation to the next. When depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, or obsessive-compulsive disorder are in a person’s genetic history, there is ultimately an increased chance that self-injurious behaviors will take place if other symptoms of these disorders are not identified and treated.

Physical: Human brain chemistry is believed to be significantly impacted by the presence of a mental health condition or conditions. Because self-harm is symptomatic of a mental illness, it can be deduced that those who partake in self-injury have altered brain chemistry. Having a brain that functions well, in terms of neurochemicals regulating emotions and impulses and communicating messages effectively, allows an individual to maintain a healthy psychological wellbeing. Those that self-harm who are battling a mental health disorder may be unable to manage emotions and impulses well and continue to engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as self-mutilation.

Environmental: Stress that is induced because of a person’s environment can cause an individual to resort to self-harm. This is especially true for those who do not possess an adequate network of support or the necessary tools and skills for coping with stress. People most vulnerable to this type of behavior are children and adolescents, as they cannot control their environments and often lack coping skills because of where they are developmentally. Additionally, youth who endure trauma, are victims of abuse, neglect, or bullying, or are exposed to ongoing stress have an increased susceptibility to engaging in self-harm.

Risk Factors:

  • Possessing a preexisting mental illness or illnesses
  • Family history of mental illness or illnesses
  • Inept coping skills
  • Experiencing the sudden loss of a loved one
  • History of trauma
  • Personal history of abuse / neglect
  • Having an inadequate support system
  • Poor impulse control
  • Confusion pertaining to one’s sexuality

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of self-harm

Those that partake in self-harming behaviors often go to great lengths to hide their injuries. The shame, guilt, and fear that someone will discover wounds and reveal these behaviors are what drive these individuals to conceal self-injury as best they can. Identifying the signs and symptoms of self-mutilation is one of the best things a parent or caregiver can initially do prior to helping a child get the much-needed treatment that will cease self-harm. Below are behavioral, physical, cognitive, and psychosocial symptoms that suggest that youth is self-injuring, symptoms that can eventually be eliminated with proper care:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Intentionally inflicting pain onto oneself
  • Acting out behaviors
  • Decreased participation in things that were once enjoyed
  • Social withdrawal or avoidance of certain social situations
  • Wearing long sleeves and pants (even when it is warm outside) in order to cover injuries
  • Making excuses for injuries
  • Dismissing injuries as accidents
  • Picking scabs so wounds do not heal

Physical symptoms:

  • Patches of missing hair
  • Cuts
  • Burns
  • Broken bones
  • Scratches
  • Bruises
  • Scrapes

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Inability to concentrate
  • Poor impulse control
  • Emotional detachment from people and surroundings
  • Ongoing thoughts about self-injuring

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Helplessness
  • Increased anxiety
  • Loneliness
  • Hopelessness
  • Defeated attitude
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Feelings of worthlessness


Effects of self-harm

When a child or adolescent self-injures, his or her physical health is at risk. Especially if self-injurious behaviors take place over a long period of time, it is likely that the following effects will occur:

  • Nerve damage
  • Improperly healed bones
  • Scarring or permanent damage to tissues
  • Infection
  • Damage to vital organs
  • Organ failure
  • Hemorrhage
  • Anemia
  • Accidental death

In addition to the physical ramifications of self-harm, there are a number of other consequences that can ensue when a young person is self-mutilating. The listed effects are likely to occur if a youth continues to inflict pain and injury on him or herself:

  • Hindered academic functioning
  • Poor academic performance
  • Social withdrawal or isolation
  • Increased conflict with peers, loved ones, or other individual’s in the youth’s life
  • Substance use or abuse
  • Development of mental illness or illnesses

Co-Occurring Disorders

Self-harm and co-occurring disorders

A symptom of many mental health conditions is self-harm. Should a young person engage in this destructive behavior, it is imperative to consult with a mental health professional to determine if he or she is suffering from one or more of the following mental health disorders:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Panic disorder
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Substance use disorder
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Schizophrenia
What Past Clients Say

A very good friend recommended the Institute and it turned out to be the best thing we could have done for our son. Even if it’s hard as a parent to send your child away for treatment, remember it’s the best thing for their health and happiness.

– Parent of a former client