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Why Do People Cut Themselves? Causes And Warning Signs

Affinity Health, a leading provider of high-quality health cover, delves into a sensitive topic that affects millions of individuals worldwide: self-harm.

We aim to shed light on the underlying causes through extensive research and analysis and provide valuable insights into recognising warning signs. We aim to foster empathy, encourage open conversations, and support those in need.

What is Self-Mutilation?

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 the following.

  • Self-harming
  • Self-inflicted violence
  • Para-suicide
  • Self-abuse
  • Self-mutilation

How Common is this Complex Behaviour?

Self-mutilation is more common than people realise. A comprehensive review published in The Lancet Journal in 2012 indicated self-harm is a significant public health concern, particularly among adolescents and young adults.

The study estimated that this population’s global prevalence of self-harm ranged from 13% to 23%. However, it is essential to note that these figures do not represent 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, four common underlying factors have been identified.

Emotional Distress: For some individuals, self-harm is a coping mechanism to manage overwhelming emotional pain or distress. Self-harm can provide temporary 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 be a form of communication or expression. Some individuals resort to self-injury to express difficult feelings, 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 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 self-harm individuals 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 to hide scars or fresh injuries on their arms, even in warm weather. 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 indicate emotional distress. Self-harm individuals often struggle with shame or guilt, leading them to isolate themselves.

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 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 cutting. At the same time, the feeling 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 dissociates the individual from feelings, drawing attention to wounds is not typically desired.

Dangerous to others: This is a misconception, as most 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:

Remember, reaching out for help is a sign of strength, and recovery is possible with the right support system.

About Affinity Health

Affinity Health is South Africa’s leading health cover provider, offering you a range of options at affordable rates, including access to the widest national provider network. We understand the importance of having medical insurance that meets your needs, budget, and lifestyle. Our healthcare products are designed to protect you and your family when it matters the most. We strive to give our clients peace of mind and the highest standard of service. For more information, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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