Self-mutilation is a complex behaviour that can take various forms, including burning, scratching, hitting, or cutting oneself. According to The South African Depression And Anxiety Group, self-mutilation has many different names and labels that people use to describe it, some of these include:
- Self-inflicted violence
How Common Is This Complex Behaviour?
Self-mutilation is more common than people realise. A comprehensive review published in the journal The Lancet in 2012 indicated that self-harm is a significant public health concern, particularly among adolescents and young adults. The study estimated that the global prevalence of self-harm in this population ranged from 13% to 23%.
However, it is important to note that these figures are not representative of the general population, as they specifically focus on self-harm among young individuals. Moreover, self-mutilation is not limited to specific demographics or regions. It can affect individuals from various backgrounds, regardless of age, gender, socioeconomic status, or cultural factors.
However, some studies have shown higher rates of self-harm among certain groups, such as individuals with a history of trauma, mental health disorders (such as depression, anxiety, or borderline personality disorder), or those who have experienced bullying or abuse.
Why Do People Cut Themselves?
Self-harm, including cutting, is a complex phenomenon that can manifest in various ways and for different reasons. It is crucial to approach this subject with sensitivity and compassion. While the specific motivations for self-harm may vary from person to person, several underlying factors have been identified:
Emotional Distress: For some individuals, self-harm serves as a coping mechanism to manage overwhelming emotional pain or distress. The act of self-harm can provide a temporary sense of relief or control, allowing individuals to express and externalise their inner turmoil.
Communication and Expression: When words fail to convey deep emotional struggles, self-harm may serve as a form of communication or expression. Some individuals resort to self-injury as a way to express feelings they find difficult to verbalize, drawing attention to their pain or signalling a cry for help.
Emotional Numbness: Paradoxically, some individuals engage in self-harm to counteract emotional numbness or dissociation. By inflicting physical pain, they seek to feel something tangible, grounding themselves in the present moment.
Self-Punishment and Guilt: Feelings of guilt, shame, or self-loathing can lead individuals to engage in self-harm as a form of punishment. They may believe they deserve pain or that physical suffering can somehow atone for perceived wrongdoings.
Identifying Warning Signs
Recognising the warning signs of self-harm is crucial in providing timely support and intervention. It is important to remember that individuals who self-harm may not always exhibit visible signs, and some warning signs may overlap with symptoms of other mental health conditions. Nonetheless, the following indicators should be taken seriously:
Unexplained Injuries: Frequent unexplained injuries, such as cuts, burns, or bruises, particularly in patterns or shapes, may indicate self-harm. These injuries are often found in areas of the body that can be easily concealed.
Wearing Concealing Clothing: Individuals who self-harm may wear long sleeves, even in warm weather, to hide scars or fresh injuries on their arms. They may also attempt to conceal other body parts with clothing or accessories.
Isolation and Withdrawal: Social isolation and withdrawal from previously enjoyed activities or relationships may be indicative of emotional distress. Individuals who self-harm often struggle with shame or guilt, leading them to isolate themselves from others.
Frequent Excuses or Unusual Behaviour: Repeatedly making excuses to avoid situations that require exposing skin, or engaging in secretive behaviours, may be a sign of self-harm. These individuals may also have an unusual fascination with sharp objects.
Common Misconceptions of Self-Mutilation
Suicide: Even though suicide and self-mutilation appear to possess the same intended goal of pain relief, the respective desired outcome of each of these behaviours is not the same. Those who cut themselves seek to escape from intense effects or achieve a level of focus and usually feel better after the act of cutting. Whereas feelings of hopelessness, despair, and depression predominate for those individuals, who intend on committing suicide.
Attention-seeking behaviour: Self-mutilators are often accused of being attention seekers. Since cutting serves to dissociate the individual from feelings, drawing attention to wounds is not typically desired.
Dangerous to others: This is a misconception as most of self-mutilators are functional and pose no threat to the safety of others.
Support and Resources
If you or someone you know is struggling with self-harm, please consider the following resources:
- The South African Depression and Anxiety Group: 0800 567 567
- South African Federation For Mental Health Helpline: (011) 781-1852
- Netcare Akeso Crisis Helpline: 0861 435 787
Remember, reaching out for help is a sign of strength, and recovery is possible with the right support system.