Self Injury

Self-injury, also known as cutting or self-mutilation, occurs when someone intentionally and repeatedly harms herself/himself. The method most often used is cutting but other common behaviors include burning, punching, and drinking something harmful, like bleach or detergent.

It’s estimated that about two million people in the U.S. injure themselves in some way. The majority are teenagers or young adults with young women outnumbering young men. They are of all races and backgrounds.

Often, people say they hurt themselves to express emotional pain or feelings they can’t put into words. It can be a way to have control over your body when you can’t control anything else in your life. A lot of people who cut themselves also have an eating disorder. Although they usually aren’t trying to kill themselves, sometimes they’re unable to control the injury and die accidentally.


Self-Injury is also termed self-mutilation, self-harm or self-abuse. The behavior is defined as the deliberate, repetitive, impulsive, non-lethal harming of one’s self. Self-injury includes:

  • Cutting
  • Scratching
  • Picking scabs or interfering with wound healing
  • Burning
  • Punching self or objects
  • Ifecting oneself
  • Inserting objects in body openings
  • Bruising or breaking bones
  • Some forms of hair-pulling, as well as other various forms of bodily harm

These behaviors, which pose serious risks, may be symptoms of a mental health problem that can be treated.


The effective treatment of self-injury is most often a combination of medication, cognitive/behavioral therapy, and interpersonal therapy, supplemented by other treatment services as needed. Medication is often useful in the management of depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and the racing thoughts that may accompany self-injury. Cognitive/behavioral therapy helps individuals understand and manage their destructive thoughts and behaviors. Contracts, journals, and behavior logs are useful tools for regaining self-control. Interpersonal therapy assists individuals in gaining insight and skills for the development and maintenance of relationships. Services for eating disorders, alcohol/substance abuse, trauma abuse, and family therapy should be readily available and integrated into treatment, depending on individual needs.

In addition to the above, successful courses of treatment are marked by 1) patients who are actively involved in and committed to their treatment, 2) aftercare plans with support for the patient’s new self-management skills and behaviors, and 3) collaboration with referring and other involved professionals.

Written by Karen Conterio and Wendy Lader, Ph.D.
Reproduced with permission from S.A.F.E. Alternatives.



S.A.F.E. Alternatives (Self-Abuse Finally Ends)
10 Bergman Ct
Forest Park, IL 60302
800.DON’T.CUT (800.366.8288)

S.A.F.E. Alternatives website.  Accessed June 2003. Internet Explorer:

Sullivan, Dana.  “Self-Injury poorly understood problem.”   September 5, 2000