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Is Self-Harm Addictive?

Millions of people in the United States engage in self-harm, but this behavior continues to be widely misunderstood. What causes people to intentionally injure themselves? Is self-harm an addiction?

What Is Self-Harm?

Self-harm is often referred to by several other names, including self-injury, self-mutilation, and non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI). No matter what term is used to describe this behavior, self-injury involves the intentional infliction of pain or damage on one’s own body.

People who engage in self-harm may do so in a variety of ways, including the following:

  • Pulling out their hair
  • Burning their skin
  • Scratching or cutting their skin
  • Inserting needles or other sharp objects beneath their skin
  • Punching themselves
  • Hitting their body against walls or other hard objects
  • Following a highly restrictive diet
  • Exercising excessively
  • Drinking toxic liquids

As indicated by the term “non-suicidal self-injury,” self-harming behaviors are not suicide attempts. However, some people who engage in self-harm do progress to suicidal behaviors. And some forms of self-harm can lead to accidental death.

Is Self-Harm an Addiction?

Is self-harm an addiction?

When we discuss addiction, we’re typically referring to the compulsive use of alcohol or another drug. But when a person finds that they cannot stop engaging in certain other behaviors – such as shopping, gambling, and having sex – these are sometimes also categorized as addictions.

Though every type of addiction is different, they can all be defined as a pattern of self-defeating behaviors that a person cannot stop, even after they have experienced direct harm due to their compulsive actions. 

But that definition, is self-harm an addiction? Yes, someone who feels compelled to injure themselves, and who cannot stop doing so even when they realize they are putting themselves in danger, could be described as engaging in an addictive behavior.

Why Do People Harm Themselves?

In addition to asking, “Is self-harm an addiction?” many people also wonder why anyone would ever engage in this behavior in the first place. 

For some people, self-harm is a symptom of a mental health disorder. For others, it is an unhealthy response to certain events, circumstances, or experiences. 

Here are a few reasons why some people harm themselves:

  • They feel that they have no control over their life. Inflicting pain on their body is a maladaptive means of exerting some control.
  • They are punishing themselves for perceived flaws, failures, or shortcomings.
  • They are dealing with psychological pain that is beyond their capacity to process in a healthy manner. Self-harm is a way of either distracting themselves from this distress or giving physical form to their emotional suffering. 

Is Self-Harm Common?

Many people who engage in self-harm go to great lengths to hide evidence of what they have been doing. This can make it difficult to determine the actual prevalence of self-harm. However, several reputable sources have attempted to determine the scope of this problem:

  • The National Center for PTSD has reported that 2%-6% of people will engage in some form of self-harm over the course of their lifetime. Among students, the Center reports, the rate of self-harm is estimated to be 13%-35%.
  • According to Mental Health America, the prevalence of self-harm is 5% among adults, 17% among adolescents, and 17%-35% among college students.
  • Data provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that self-harm was responsible for 660,000 emergency department visits in the U.S. in 2021.

To put some of these statistics into perspective:

  • The 2020 U.S. census indicated that there are more than 258 million adults living in the United States. If 5% of this population engages in self-harm, that would mean that about 12.9 million people ages 18 and above have intentionally injured themselves.
  • The estimated U.S. population between the ages of 12-17 is 25.8 million. If 17% of those in this age group engaged in self-harm, that would equate to more than 4 million distinct cases.

What Are the Warning Signs of Self-Harm?

As we noted when discussing self-harm statistics, the efforts that people undertake to hide evidence of self-harm can make this behavior difficult to detect. With that in mind, if you suspect that someone in your life has been engaging in this behavior, here are a few signs to keep an eye out for:

  • Always wearing long sleeves and/or long pants, even in warm weather
  • Refusing to change clothes in front of other people
  • Turning down opportunities to go swimming or participate in other activities that would expose parts of their body that they typically keep covered
  • Seeming to always have cuts, bruises, or other injuries that never fully heal
  • Undergoing dramatic swings in mood and attitude
  • Being extremely self-critical or otherwise speaking of themselves in a negative manner
  • Having difficulty managing stress or dealing with even relatively minor setbacks 

On their own, no single symptom listed above is definitive proof that someone has been engaging in self-harm. But people who exhibit these signs may be in crisis and could need professional help. 

The best way to determine if someone has been intentionally self-harming is to have them examined by a doctor or another qualified healthcare provider. This professional can assess their needs and, if necessary, recommend appropriate mental health treatment options.

Find Help for Self-Harm in Atlanta

If someone in your life has been engaging in self-harm, Peachtree Wellness Solutions may be able to help.

We serve adults in the Atlanta, Georgia, area whose lives have been disrupted by self-harm and other mental and behavioral health concerns. Treatment options at our center include residential care, a partial hospitalization program (PHP), and an intensive outpatient program (IOP).

In each of these programs, our patients work in close collaboration with a team of skilled professionals to identify and address the root causes of their struggles. Though a person’s time in our care may be relatively brief, the skills they develop here are designed to yield lifelong benefits.

To learn more about our programs and services or to schedule a free assessment, please visit our Admissions page or call our center today.