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Topic: Self-harm

Question: Is it true that some people deliberately hurt themselves without the intention of killing themselves?

Kathryn Gordon, Ph.D., LP

Psychologist, Sanford Women’s Health and Assistant Scientist, Sanford Center for Biobehavioral Research






Expert's Response

Yes – some individuals do engage in this behavior that professionals call “non-suicidal self-injury” (NSSI). The most common behavior is cutting, often the skin on the forearms or insides of the thigh. Other NSSI behaviors include burning skin or banging one’s head.

There are several theories to why individuals engage in NSSI. One of the most popular theories is that causing physical pain to the body helps to reduce, or distract from, the experience of emotional pain (such as sadness, loneliness, etc.). Other theories suggest that self-harm releases “feel good” chemicals in the brain, which then helps to boost one’s mood. Also, particularly for individuals who have experienced some type of trauma, the pain from NSSI may help them feel not so numb emotionally.

While some self-harm behaviors may be obvious, oftentimes they occur in secret with the intention of hiding them from others. In terms of who may be at greater risk, NSSI may be more common among adolescents and young adults and more common among women than men. The good news is that there are effective treatments for NSSI. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is one particular type of “talk therapy” that has been shown to be effective at reducing self-harm behaviors. This treatment focuses on finding healthy coping skills to replace the NSSI behaviors. If you suspect that a loved one may be harming themselves intentionally, check-in with that person and ask them how they are doing. However, be sure to approach that individual in a non-judgmental way, letting them know that you are there to help and not to pass judgment on their behavior.