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Mental Health and Self-Injury

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What Are the Symptoms of Self-Injury?

The symptoms of self-injury include:

  • Frequent cuts and burns that cannot be explained
  • Self-punching or scratching
  • Needle sticking
  • Head banging
  • Eye pressing
  • Finger or arm biting
  • Pulling out one's hair
  • Picking at one's skin

 

Warning Signs of Self-Injury

Signs that an individual may be engaging in self-injury include:

  • Wearing of pants and long sleeves in warm weather.
  • The appearance of lighters, razors, or sharp objects that one would not expect among a person's belongings.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Difficulty handling feelings.
  • Relationship problems.
  • Poor functioning at work, school, or home.

 

How Is Self-Injury Diagnosed?

If an individual shows signs of self-injury, a mental health professional with self-injury expertise should be consulted. That person will be able to make an evaluation and recommend a course of treatment. Self-injury can be a symptom of psychiatric illness including:

  • Personality disorders (particularly borderline personality disorder)
  • Substance use disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Major depression
  • Anxiety disorders (particularly obsessive-compulsive disorder)
  • Schizophrenia

How Is Self-Injury Treated?

Treatment for self-injury may include:

  • Psychotherapy:  Counseling can be used to help a person stop engaging in self-injury.
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): DBT is a group- and individually-based treatment program that helps people gain greater mastery over self-destructive impulses (such as self-injury), learn ways to better tolerate distress, and acquire new coping skills through techniques such as mindfulness.
  • Post-traumatic stress therapies: These may be helpful for self-injurers who have a history of abuse or incest.
  • Group therapy: Talking about your condition in a group setting to people who have similar problems may be helpful in decreasing the shame associated with self-harm, and in supporting healthy expression of emotions.
  • Family therapy: This type of therapy addresses any history of family stress related to the behavior and can help family members learn to communicate more directly and openly with each other.
  • Hypnosis and other self-relaxation techniques: These approaches are helpful in reducing the stress and tension that often precede incidents of self-injury.
  • Medications: Antidepressants. low-dose antipsychotics, or anti-anxiety medication may be used to reduce the initial impulsive response to stress.

 

What Is the Outlook for People Who Engage in Self-Injury?

The prognosis for self-injurious behavior varies depending upon a person's emotional or psychological state and the nature of any underlying psychiatric condition. It is important to determine the factors that lead to an individual's self-injuring behaviors, and to identify and treat any pre-existing personality disorders. 

 

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD on February 11, 2014
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