What Is Mental Self-Harm?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 17 November 2018
  • Copyright Protected:
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Mental self-harm is the infliction of injury to cope with stress, problems, or anxiety. This is not done with the intent to commit suicide. People who engage in this behavior are not necessarily mentally ill, although some psychiatric disorders, like obsessive compulsive disorder, can increase the risk of self-harm. Treatments are available to help people manage the impulses that may compel them to injure themselves.

This activity can take a number of forms. Patients may burn or cut themselves, or expose themselves to emotionally distressing content like upsetting news stories. Some may do so during periods of extreme emotional distress, while others may appear calm during episodes of mental self-harm. A release of endorphins can occur with physical injury, which may distract a patient from an upsetting topic or situation. It may also provide a sense of control.

Signs that someone is engaging in mental self-harm can include numerous unexplained injuries and a flattened or depressed attitude. Some patients may hide their injuries with long sleeves and scarves, or could provide explanations for frequent injury that do not withstand scrutiny. Cuts on the arms, for example, may be dismissed as injuries from a pet or an accident in the garden. Secrecy is often a component of mental self-harm, and patients may not be willing to discuss their coping techniques with the people around them.


Treatments for mental self-harm can include an attempt to address the underlying problem. This may involve psychotherapy, medication, or intervention to address a bad situation at home or school. Teens who experience bullying, for example, may hurt themselves in an attempt to feel more in control. Resolving the abuse may help the teen stop. High stress and anxiety may be managed with lifestyle changes, while an issue like depression could be better controlled with therapy and medication in some cases.

In addition to addressing the reasons the patient engages in mental self-harm, a counselor can also provide patients with advice on how to stop the practice. Some may enter contracts with counselors to call a buddy when they feel like harming, for example. They could develop hobbies to engage in when they feel the urge to self-harm, to create a new, safe distraction when they feel stressed out and upset. Support from friends and family can be important to help a patient stay on track with a therapy plan and feel safe at home and in other settings.



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