Feeling Bad, Feeling Better

hands*Trigger Warning: This post contains information related to self-harm.

What is self-harm/self-injury?

Many people use the term “cutting” to describe self-harm.  While this isn’t entirely untrue, the reality is that self-harm is far more than just self-mutilation and injury to the body–more than cutting, burning, pinching, or things that leave visible results.  In fact, self-harm may include things that are still harmful, but with less visible effects–things like excessive exercise, increased alcohol consumption, overdosing (with non-fatal intention), engaging in self-sabotaging or relationship-sabotaging behaviors,  staying in unhealthy relationships, and mixing alcohol with medications.


Is self-harm the same thing as a suicide attempt?

No.  It’s important to understand that with self-harm, the intention is only to cause harm to oneself, whereas the intention of suicide is to end one’s life.


Is self-harm a mental illness?

Self-harm is not a mental illness.  The act of self-harm is a behavior, and may be a sign of a mental illness, but is not considered a mental illness in and of itself.


Is it  true that self-harm can feel good?

It’s important that we recognize what “feeling good” means when it comes to self-harm.  For many individuals, the act of self-harm is a coping skill, and like many coping skills, the intention is to bring relief from a current situation or stressor.  Some individuals who self-harm report that their actions have a predictable outcome and bring a sense of “release”–easing a build-up of pressure that is troublesome or painful.  While self-harm may be perceived as helpful for some people,  it’s important to learn healthier coping strategies.

One of the challenges in treating self-harm is that there is an addictive quality to the behavior.  Because self-harm often plays a role in easing other unpleasant feelings, it develops a quality of feeling good over time.  If you think about it, there are similar characteristics to emotional and physical pain, and if a person finds something that brings relief, that person will likely use it over and over again.  Many sufferers report self-harming in “ritualistic” ways, meaning they may have a routine that they follow, like having a specific location where they feel safe to engage in self-harm and will go unnoticed, using specific tools to self-harm, and only causing harm to specific areas of the body.   Because the act of self-harm is part of the routine, the person may associate the action with feeling better or feeling “good”.


Isn’t self-harm an issue specific to teenage girls?

Self-harm can happen in any person at any age.  Although statistics tell us that young women (i.e. middle school and high school age) may experience self-harm at higher rates, the condition is found across gender, race, age, and culture.


If you or someone you know needs help:

There are many types of treatment available for individuals struggling with self-harming behaviors.  Some treatment options include:

  • Counseling/Therapy to address underlying emotions or other problems that may be factoring into self-injurious behavior.  Negative or maladaptive emotions and thoughts can be identified and replaced with healthier and more positive alternatives that support recovery efforts.
  • Medication may be utilized at times to address symptoms of a co-occurring disorder (i.e. depression, anxiety) that exacerbate tendencies to self-harm.  It is important to note that while medication may help alleviate some mental health symptoms, the individual will still need to work toward changing behavioral responses that lead to self-harm.
  • Combinations of treatments, lifestyle changes, and a solid support system all contribute to recovery from self-harm.

If you or someone you know may be struggling with self-harm, support and resources are available.

  • SAMHSA’s treatment locator (https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov/locator/help) offers resources based on your zip code.
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Information HelpLine provides information and referrals services.  1-800-950-NAMI (6264).
  • National Council for Behavioral Health can assist you in finding a local provider of behavioral health services and support.  www.theNationalCouncil.org (click on “Find a Provider).

In an emergency, please call 911 or your local emergency number, or go to your nearest emergency room.