Signs & Symptoms of Self-Harm

Learn about the side effects, causes, signs and symptoms of self-harm. Millcreek of Magee Treatment Center offers the best residential treatment and home-based programs for children & adolescents struggling with self-harm.

Understanding Self-Harm

Learn more about self-harm

When a child or adolescent cuts, bites, burns, pinches, scratches, hits, or scrapes him or herself as a means of coping with emotional turmoil or unpleasant feelings, he or she is engaging in self-harm. Also known as self-mutilation or self-injury, self-harm is often mistaken as an attempt to end one’s life. However, those who participate in self-mutilation are often actually struggling with distressing symptoms of a mental health condition or conditions.

Overwhelming feelings of anxiety frequently induce the cyclical patterns of self-injury. These feelings result in self-harm as sufferers find a false sense of relief from anxiety when physical pain is inflicted. The danger in this type of behavior is that prolonged self-injury can ultimately become life-threatening if these patterns of harm to not come to an end. Especially if a person ingests harmful chemicals or break his or her own bones as a means of self-injury, the consequences can be permanent or even result in death. Mental health treatment, however, can help young people who self-harm understand why this type of behavior is unhealthy and teach them how to manage all-consuming anxiety sensations. Seeking this type of care can significantly reduce the risks involved in self-harm and allow a child or adolescent to resume life free from the compulsions to inflict physical pain onto his or her own body.


Self-harm statistics

Prevalence rates of self-injury are not fully known as this type of behavior is often hidden from friends and loved ones of those who participate in this for of self-destruction. However, research speculates that 1 in 5 females participate in some form of self-harm. Additionally, it is estimated that 1 in 7 males also engage in self-mutilation at some point in life. Lastly, it has been concluded that this type of behavior often indicates the presence of a mental health condition or conditions.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for self-harm

Self-harm is known to occur alongside a myriad of mental health conditions. However, certain genetic, physical, and environmental factors can cause a person to resort to self-injury when a mental illness exists. Consider the following causes and risk factors for self-injury, which are supported by experts in the field of mental health:

Genetic: While the presence of self-harming behaviors is not genetic, the mental health conditions that include self-injury as a possible symptom can be passed on through a person’s genes. Especially for those with a family history of depression, anxiety, or other mental illness in which mood disturbances and poor impulse control are factors, there is a greater chance that an individual with this genetic background will engage in self-mutilating behaviors.

Physical: Being that self-harm can be symptomatic of a mental health condition, the physical ramifications on a person’s brain can be significant. Specifically with regards to certain neurochemicals in an individual’s brain, of which need to be in balance in order for a person’s brain to function in a healthy manner, mental health conditions can adversely affect these chemicals and cause symptoms, such as self-injury, to appear. Self-harm is especially likely if neurochemicals that control a person’s mood and impulses are imbalanced.

Environmental: When a young person does not possess the necessary skills to cope with stress or emotional turmoil, there is a possibility that he or she will engage in self-harming behaviors. Additionally, if a child or adolescent lacks appropriate and adequate support, the likelihood of self-injury is even greater. Lastly, researchers have found that young people who have a history of trauma, abuse, neglect, and exposure to chronic stress are also more likely to self-mutilate when skills for coping and support are not present.

Risk Factors:

  • Possessing a pre-existing mental health condition or conditions
  • Family history of mental health condition or conditions
  • Having an inadequate support system
  • Lacking control over impulses
  • Lacking effective coping skills
  • Experiencing the sudden loss of a loved one
  • Experiencing trauma
  • Personal history of abuse and/or neglect
  • Confusion pertaining to one’s sexuality

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of self-harm

Even though people who self-mutilate experience an overwhelming desire to cause pain to his or her person, there is a great deal of shame associated with this type of impulsive behavior. Because of this, individuals who engage in self-harm often go to great lengths to conceal these behaviors and injuries, thus making it difficult to identify signs and symptoms of self-injury. If you suspect that your child is self-harming, it is important to observe the following signs that infer a young person is engaging in self-mutilation:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Intentionally inflicting pain onto oneself
  • Wearing clothing that is not appropriate for weather conditions so as to conceal injuries
  • Frequently making excuses for injuries
  • Explaining injuries away as accidents
  • Scab picking
  • Acting out behaviors
  • Decreased participation in things that were once enjoyed or considered pleasurable
  • Social withdrawal or avoidance of certain social situations

Physical symptoms:

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

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Poor focus
  • Feeling detached from surroundings
  • Ongoing thoughts about self-injuring
  • Lack of concentration
  • Inability to control impulses

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Loneliness
  • Hopelessness
  • Feeling defeated
  • Feeling as though it is not possible to achieve
  • Guilty feelings
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Helplessness
  • Elevated levels of anxiety


The effects of self-harm

Self-mutilation can be quite costly to a person’s health. The following consequences to an individual’s physical well-being could occur if self-harming behaviors remain without care to cease these destructive behavior patterns:

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

Additionally, other areas of a young person’s life can be adversely affected when self-injury is taking place. The listed effects are examples of what could happen if treatment is not implement to help those who self-injure:

  • Declined academic functioning
  • Social withdrawal or isolation
  • Increased conflict with others
  • Substance abuse
  • Development of mental health condition(s)

Co-Occurring Disorders

Self-harm and co-occurring disorders

When a child or adolescent inflicts physical pain upon him or herself, he or she is typically suffering from a form of mental illness. The following mental health conditions are examples of such illnesses that can trigger the compulsion to self-injure:

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Panic disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Substance use disorder
  • Schizophrenia