Cutting & Self-Harm: Signs, Causes, and Treatment Options

A young adult woman is joined by her mother in seeking treatment for self harm with a therapist

What is Self-Harm?

Self-harm is the act of purposefully causing injury to oneself. Clinically, self-harm may be referred to as non-suicidal self-injury. Someone who self-harms commonly hurts themselves in a number of ways:

  • Cutting
  • Burning
  • Scratching
  • Biting
  • Punching
  • Stabbing
  • Hair pulling

Self-injury itself is not a form of mental health disorder. Instead, it’s often associated with mental distress. However, it is common for someone who self-harms to suffer from a mental disorder like anxiety, depression, or PTSD.

Generally, teens and young adults are most at risk of self-harming. However, older adults may also harm themselves, especially adults who are suffering from a substance abuse disorder, struggling with PTSD, or who are survivors of physical abuse or trauma.

Learn more about mood disorders that can cause self-harm

Mood Disorders


What is considered self-harm?

Self-harm is any act where the individual harms themselves on purpose. While we generally think of self-harm as cutting, it can take a number of different forms. In some cases, self-harm can even take the form of over-exercising, starving oneself, or picking at scabs to prevent wounds from healing.

When determining if someone is harming themselves, intent is one of the main diagnostic factors. Someone who is diagnosed as self-harming shows a continued pattern of non-suicidal self-injury that is meant to cope with or relieve mental distress.

Sometimes, it may be obvious that someone is self-harming, as is often the case with cutting or burning, in other cases, such as over-exercising, the person’s intent may be less obvious. However, anyone who purposefully takes an action to cause pain, discomfort, or injury to themselves is self-harming.

Signs of Self-Harm

Because someone who self-harms may attempt to cover-up or hide scarring, bruising, or other injuries, it can be difficult to identify signs of self-harming. However, common physical signs and symptoms of self-injury can include:

  • Scarring, often in clusters or patterns along the upper thigh or on a person’s arms
  • Other recent scratches, bruises, bite marks or wounds, also in patterns or clusters
  • Redness as a result of excessive scratching or rubbing
  • Reports of frequent accidental injuries
  • Extreme weight loss

People who self-harm may also suffer from depression, anxiety, PTSD, or another mental health disorder. Alongside physical signs of self-harm, symptoms of depression or emotional distress can indicate self-harming. These symptoms include:

  • Behavioral and emotional instability
  • Impulsive or reckless behavior
  • Statements of hopelessness, worthlessness, or guilt
  • General low mood, sadness, or lack of motivation or interest in daily activities

Why Do People Self-Harm?

People harm themselves for a wide range of reasons. For many, it’s a coping method they’ve developed to try to handle anything from a stressful, chaotic home life to dealing with their emotions. People may self-harm to:

  • Block troubling feelings or memories
  • Signal that they’re in need of help
  • Make themselves feel in control of either their current situation or emotions
  • Punish themselves for actions, thoughts, or feelings they perceive as “bad” or “wrong”
  • Release strong emotions like anger or sadness

The reasons for self-injury vary for each individual, but any relief they gain from it is only temporary. Without proper treatment, a person who self-harms will often begin a self-destructive cycle. They may regularly find they need to do so more frequently in order to feel the same level of relief they had previously.

It’s important to note that, in general, individuals who harm themselves are not attempting suicide. Often their intentions are only to find a temporary relief from something causing them emotional discomfort or distress. However, this doesn’t mean that self-harm is less serious, or any less life-threatening.

How to Help Someone Who Cuts or Self-Harms

Discovering that a friend, family member, or partner is self-harming can be difficult. It can be hard to understand why they are hurting themselves and it’s understandable to not know what you can do to help. Fortunately, there are several simple ways that you can help your loved one:

  • Be there to talk and listen: Ask them how they are feeling, what is happening in their life, and what is causing them to harm themselves. Let them know they can turn to you for support, and to express their emotions.
  • Do not be judgmental: Listen, offer your support, but try not to judge them. Keep yourself from telling them what they’re doing is “bad” or “stupid” – this may worsen underlying feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, or guilt.
  • Understand that it is a long and hard journey to stop self-harming: Don’t try to force the person to get better. Don’t issue any ultimatums. It’s important to understand that someone will only stop self-harming when they feel they’re ready and able to do so.

As their friend or relative, you can also help someone who is self-harming find professional treatment and support. Even though they have your support, you are only equipped to handle so much.

It takes a lot of understanding and experience to fully address and help someone recover from self-harm and its underlying causes. The person will need guidance, support, and treatment from a trained mental health professional. It’s important that they’re able to seek this help when they’re ready.

Treatment For Cutting and Self-Harm

In order to overcome a self-harm habit, it’s important to have the help and support of a trained mental health professional. They can help you develop healthy coping skills and strategies, as well as helping you identify the root cause for hurting yourself. Confronting the cause of self-harm is important for long-term recovery.

Treatment for cutting and other forms of self-injury usually requires a multilevel approach. First, it’s important to identify the cause of the individual’s emotional distress. This may be an underlying mental health disorder, like anxiety or depression. It could also stem from a troubled home life or a history of abuse. Regardless, once the cause or causes are identified, the next step is therapy.


Psychotherapy, or therapy for short, attempts to help the individual identify their underlying causes of emotional distress and develop healthy coping skills and habits. There are several different types of therapy, including:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): A method of therapy that focuses on helping the patient to identify both unhealthy and negative behaviors or beliefs. Once they have been identified, unhealthy behaviors and beliefs can be replaced with healthy, adaptive ones.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): A subtype of CBT, dialectical behavior therapy teaches patients behavioral skills to help them better tolerate emotional distress. It can also help teach patients ways to manage their emotional responses and help improve their relationships with others.
  • Mindfulness-based therapies: Mindfulness is a practice that helps patients detach from their thoughts and live in the present. It can also help patients reduce anxiety and appropriately perceive the thoughts and actions of those around them.

Medication Therapy

While there aren’t any medications that specifically treat self-harm, there are medications which can treat underlying causes such as depression and anxiety. Antidepressants, like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), are generally the first-line medications to treat the underlying disorder that’s associated with self-injury. Treating a patient’s mental or behavioral health disorders may help them to feel less compelled to self-harm.

It’s important to understand that proper treatment requires the help and supervision of a trained medical professional. Behavioral health specialists have the skills and knowledge to safely treat someone who is self-harming. If you or someone you know is self-harming, find a qualified therapist or mental health professional who can start safe and effective treatment.

Start Self-Injury Treatment With Pyramid Family Behavioral Health

The behavioral health experts and clinicians at Pyramid Family Behavioral Health are here to help adults and adolescents in the Atlanta, GA area recover from mental health disorder and distress, including self-harm.

If you, or someone you know, is self-harming, our team can help provide an evidence-based, integrated recovery program that addresses the needs of each individual patient. Our staff will work with you to identify the underlying causes of self-harm, whether it’s stress, trauma, or a mental disorder, and help you develop healthy, long-lasting coping methods. Contact us today to learn more about our mental health treatment programs in Johns Creek and Sandy Springs.

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