Self-harm is the act of harming of one’s own body on purpose. It is a mental disorder that affects one in 100 people and usually starts in teen or early adult years. It occurs more often in adolescent females.

Self-harm is known by other names including, deliberate self-harm (DSH), self-injury, self-mutilation and self-abuse.  

People who self-harm feel overwhelmed and use it as an outlet for, or a distraction from their mental distress. They harm themselves as a way of coping with multiple emotions, including: stress, anger, frustration, failure, self-hatred, and past trauma, such as physical and sexual abuse. Self-injury gives them the same emotional release that crying provides for others.

Because they may feel ashamed or afraid of others’ reactions, most people who suffer from it choose to harm areas of the body that are easily hidden by clothing. Since they suffer alone, the stress relief they achieve through the act of self-harm is only temporary. 

When a person commits self-harm, it is not an attempt at suicide. Self harm is done with the purpose of feeling better, while suicide is meant to end all feelings. Self-harm may start as an impulsive act, such as punching a wall. Over time, the behavior escalates and wounds appear more often and in greater numbers.

The most common form of self-harm is skin-cutting (cutting) on the arms and legs, but it includes a wide range of behaviors:

  • Scratching
  • Punching, banging or hitting body parts
  • Burning or branding oneself with hot objects
  • Picking at or re-opening wounds
  • Hair-pulling (trichotillomania)
  • Swallowing toxic substances or objects

Signs and Symptoms

  • Scratches that look superficial, but appear regularly
  • Making excuses for wounds, such as clumsiness, or cat-scratches
  • Wearing long sleeves or long pants (When the weather is warm)
  • Spending  a lot of time alone
  • Relationship changes
  • Changes in school performance
  • Expressing  hopelessness, helplessness or worthlessness
  • Questioning one’s existence


There is no specific method for diagnosing self-harm disorder. Its signs usually are discovered by family or friends. A health care provider also may notice signs during a medical exam or when treatment is sought for a wound infection or medical condition resulting from self-harm.

The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) lists self-harm as a symptom of other disorders. Individuals who self- harm may also have other mental conditions, including: depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia and other personality disorders.


A mental health professional with experience in self-harm can evaluate the individual to determine if there is another condition. 

Cognitive-behavior therapy can be used to help identify and analyze dysfunctional emotions, behaviors and thoughts, and replace them with more positive ways of dealing with life. 

CHI Health Psychiatric Associates, with offices in Omaha and surrounding areas, has highly-trained mental health providers who can address the needs of those who suffer from self-harm. 

If you think you or a loved one may be suffering from self-harm, call (402) 717-HOPE.