Self-inflicted violence has become an increasingly prevalent phenomenon in our culture, and one that many psychotherapists understand as a way, like eating disorders, for people to manage difficult feelings.
Self-inflicted violence (SIV), sometimes called self-injury, self-mutilation, or self-harm, has been defined by one author as "direct, deliberate destruction or alteration of one’s own body tissue without conscious suicidal intent." (Favazza,1992.) This can include cutting, burning, plucking hairs from the head or body, breaking bones, head banging, needle poking, scratching the skin or rubbing glass into the skin, or the repetitive rubbing of skin with a pencil eraser, among other methods.
An estimated 2 million or more people engage in some form of SIV.
Self-inflicted violence often begins during early adolescence, though it is also practiced by people in their late teens, twenties, and thirties, and sometimes those who are older. It may begin in response to a particular stressor, like family discord or parents divorcing. In other instances, it is adopted as a means of making physical pain and visible scars for what previously was solely emotional and invisible.
Self-inflicted violence is one way people may respond to the emotional pain of physical or sexual abuse. In some cases, it is a way of a person's creating feelings and staving off a sense of being empty, hollow, or deadened. The practice of SIV may temporarily create a feeling of relief, where feelings are let out, or of wholeness, where now feeling anything is part of the person's experience.
Gaining feelings of greater control is also a reason given by people for their self-injuring. People who engage in SIV are often secretive about the acts and may feel ashamed of engaging in self-harming behaviors.
Treatment for SIV is largely aimed at addressing underlying emotions. A therapist may or may not initially try to help a client interrupt the pattern of self-injuring behaviors, depending on their seriousness. In this sense, SIV deserves both long-term and short-term attention; that is, attention to what is going on right now and the ability to look at the big picture, including how SIV fits into the context and meaning of a person’s life.
Many people who engage in self-injury find that, though they improve in therapy over time, it may be a number of years before the overt symptoms cease altogether. Medication is often helpful in supporting a person’s functioning in a better, more satisfying way, while concurrently working in therapy.
There are many resources for people who engage in SIV. The Counseling Center staff is knowledgeable and empathic about SIV, able to address it in individual, short-term counseling, and can make referrals for longer-term therapy, where appropriate. Area support groups or groups in the Counseling Center may be helpful as additional support for people struggling with self-inflicted violence.