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 as "direct, deliberate destruction or alteration of one’s own body tissue without conscious suicidal intent." This can include cutting, burning, or 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 of all ages. 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 creating physical pain and making 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 a person creates feelings and staves off a sense of being empty, hollow, or deadened. The practice of SIV may temporarily create a feeling of relief.
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. Depending on the seriousness, a therapist may or may not initially try to help a client interrupt the pattern of self-injuring behaviors. In this sense, SIV deserves both short-term and long-term attention; that is, attention to what feelings are being experienced right now and the ability to look at the big picture, including how SIV fits into a person’s life.
Many people who engage in self-injury find that with therapy, they improve over time, though it may be a number of years before the overt symptoms cease altogether. While concurrently working in therapy, medication often helps a person function better.
There are many resources for people who engage in SIV. Counseling and Psychological Services staff is able to address SIV empathetically offering individual, short-term counseling, and when appropriate, making referrals for longer-term therapy. Area support groups or groups in Counseling and Psychological Services may be helpful as additional support for people struggling with self-inflicted violence.