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Self-injury/Self-Harm (Cutting)

Self-injury is the act of deliberately harming your own body, such as cutting or burning yourself. This type of self-injury is not typically meant as a suicide attempt, is a harmful way to cope with emotional pain, intense anger, and frustration.


Self-injury may bring a momentary sense of calm and release tension, it’s often followed by guilt and share and the return of painful emotions. Life-threatening injuries are not intended, but it comes with the possibility of more-serious and even fatal self-aggressive actions. Research indicates that self-injury occurs in as many as 4% of adults in the US. Rates are higher among adolescents with teens reporting approximately 15% of some form of self-injury. Studies show a higher risk among college students, with rates ranging from 17-35%.


  • Signs and symptoms of self-injury may include:

  • Scars, usually patterns

  • Fresh cuts, scratches, bruises, bite marks or other wounds

  • Wearing long sleeves or long pants, even in warmer weather

  • Difficulties in interpersonal relationships

  • Keeping sharp objects on hand

  • Excessive rubbing of an area to create a burn

  • Statements of helplessness, hopelessness or worthlessness

  • Frequent reports of accidental injury


Warning signs

Signs that someone may be injuring themselves include:

  • Unexplained frequent injuries including cuts and burns

  • Low self-esteem

  • Difficulty handling feelings

  • Poor functioning at work, school, or home

  • Relationship problems or avoidance of relationships


Those who self-injure attempt to conceal their marks and you may notice them wearing inappropriate clothing. A person who self-injures may often make excuses as to how an injury happened.


Forms of self-injury

This usually occurs in private and is done in a controlled or ritualistic manner that often leaves patterns on the skin. Examples of self-harm include:

  • Skin cutting (70-90%)

  • Self-hitting, punching or head banging (21-44%)

  • Burning, with lit matches, cigarettes or heated, sharp objects (15-35%)

  • Scratching

  • Carving words or symbols on the skin

  • Inserting objects under the skin

  • Piercing the skin with sharp objections


Typically, the arms, legs and front of the torso are the targets of self-injury but any area of the body may be used. Those that self-injure may use more than one method to harm themselves.


When to see a professional

The person should reach out for help if they are injuring themselves or if they have thoughts of harming themselves. Any form of self-injury is a sign of bigger issues that need and should be addressed.


Talking to someone you trust who can help you take the first steps to successful treatment. You can find supportive, caring and nonjudgmental help even if you feel ashamed and embarrassed about your behavior.


When a friend or loved one self-injures

If you have a friend of loved one who is self-injuring, you may be shocked and scared. Take all talk of self-injury seriously. Self-injury is a big problem and should not be ignored or left to deal with it alone even if you feel that you’d be betraying their confidence.

Here are some ways you can help your child: Start by consulting your pediatrician or other health care providers who can provide an initial evaluation or a referral to a mental health professional. Do not yell or make threats or accusations to your child, but express your concern.


  • Preteen or teenage friend – Suggest that your friend or teen reaches out to parents, a teacher, a school
    counselor or another trusted adult.

  • Adult – Express your concern and encourage the person to seek medical and mental health treatment.

When to seek emergency help

If you’ve injured yourself severely or believe your injury may be life-threatening or you think you may hurt yourself or attempt suicide, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.


Consider these options if you’re considering suicide or have suicidal thoughts:

  • Call your mental health professional (if you have or are seeing one)

  • Call a suicide hotline. The National Suicidal Prevention Lifeline can be reached by different methods:

  • 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)

  • Webchat at

  • Seek help from your school counselor, nurse, teacher, doctor or other health care professional

  • Reach out to a loved one or close friend

  • Contact a spiritual leaders of someone in your faith community


There are different reasons why people harm themselves. Self-injury may result from:

Poor coping skills – nonsuicidal self-injury is usually the result of an inability to cope with psychological pain in a healthy way.

Difficulty managing emotions – The person has a difficult time regulating, expressing or understanding emotions. The mix of emotions that triggers self-injury is complex and there may be feelings of worthlessness, loneliness, panic, guilt, anger, rejection, self-hatred or confused sexuality


They harm themselves to try to:

  • Make themselves feel something, when they feel empty or numb inside

  • Block upsetting memories

  • Show that they need help

  • Release strong feelings that overwhelm them, such as anger, loneliness, or hopelessness

  • Punish themselves

  • Feel a sense of control

Risk factors

Most who self-injure are teenagers and younger adults, although those in other age groups also self-injure. Often self-injury starts in the preteen or early teen years when their emotions are more volatile and face increased peer pressure, loneliness, and conflicts with authority figures or with parents. Some factors may increase the risk of self-injury, such as:

  • Having friends who self-injure

  • Life issues

  • Mental health issues (depression, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder)

  • Alcohol or drug use

  • Low self-esteem

  • Trauma or abused as a child


Complications from self-injury

A variety of complications include:

  • Infection, either from wounds or from sharing tools

  • Severe, possibly fatal injury

  • Worsening of underlying issues and disorders (if not treated)

  • Worsening feelings of shame, guilt or low self-esteem



There is no sure way to prevent one’s self-injury, but reducing the risk includes strategies that involve both individuals and communities. Parents, family members, teachers, coaches, counselors and nurses can help.


Identify someone at risk and offer to help

Encourage expansion of social networks

Raise awareness

Encourage peers to seek help

Talk about media influence


Other Resources

The Mighty’s Guide to Understanding Self-Harm


S.A.F.E. Alternatives (Self-Abuse Finally Ends)

Information Hotline: 1-800-DON’T-CUT (1-800-366-8288)


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