WOU: Resources for Healthy Living

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Student Health & Counseling Center

Resources for Healthy Living

Coping with Stress | Sexual Assault | Depression and Suicide 
Eating Disorders |  Self Injury | Grief

Self Injury

What self injury is not:

  • Self-injury is not a failed suicide attempt
  • Self-injury is a way of carrying on with life, not of dying. Injuries are seldom life threatening. It is important to distinguish self-injury from a suicide attempt, so that its true meanings can be understood.
  • Self-injury is not "just attention seeking"
  • Self-injury is primarily about helping oneself cope with great pain. For some, it is a desperate attempt to show that something is really wrong, and attention should be paid to their distress.
  • Self-injury is not a sign of madness
  • Self-injury is a sign of distress, not madness; a sign of someone trying to cope with life as best they can.
  • A person who self-injures is not a danger to others
  • Someone who self-injures is directing their hurt and anger inward, not at others. Most would be appalled at the idea of hurting someone else

What is self-injury?

  • "Self-injury" is any sort of self-harm which involves inflicting injuries or pain on one's own body. It can take many forms.
  • The most common form of self-injury is probably cutting, usually superficially, but sometimes deeply. People may also burn themselves, punch themselves, or hit their bodies against something. Some people pick their skin or pull out hair.

How common is self-injury?

  • Self-injury is far more widespread than is generally realized. All sorts of people self-injure. Often they carry on successful careers or look after families and there is little outward sign that there is anything wrong. Self-injury seems to be more common among women, partly because men are more likely to express strong feelings such as anger outwardly.
  • Many people who self-injure believe they are the only person that hurts themselves in this way. Fear and shame may force them to keep self-injury secret for many years. This means that the true extent of the problem is unknown. Our experience shows that where it is acceptable to talk about it, many women reveal that they have self-injured for some time.

Why do people self injure?

  • There are always powerful reasons why people self injure. For most it is a way of surviving emotional pain.
  • Many people cope with difficulties in their lives in ways that are risky and harmful to them. Some drink or eat too much, smoke, drive too fast, gamble, or make themselves ill through over work or worry. They might do this to numb or distract themselves from problems or feelings they cannot bear to face.
  • Self-injury, though shocking, bears many similarities to these "ordinary" forms of self-harm. Like alcohol or drugs, hurting themselves may help a person block out painful feelings. Like taking risks or gambling, it may provide danger and distraction
  • Self-injury is a "cry for help," a way of showing (even to themselves) that they have suffered and are in pain. Perhaps hurting themselves is a way of feeling "real" and alive, or having control over "something" in their life. What lies behind their distress may be painful experiences in childhood or adulthood. A person may have suffered neglect or sexual abuse, or may have always been criticized or silenced, rather than supported and allowed to express her needs and feelings. Some people who self-injure lost their parents early, or came from chaotic or violent families. For others, adult experiences of emotional or physical cruelty have led to their desperation.

What can help?

  • Self-injury causes great distress, and can seem a difficult problem to overcome. But it is possible for people to stop hurting themselves, if they can understand and resolve the problems behind what they do.

If you want to help someone who self-injures...

  • ...naturally you may feel upset, shocked, or angry when someone you care about hurts themselves. Try to keep seeing the person in pain behind the injuries. The most precious things you can offer are acceptance and support. Let your friend know you understand that self-injury is helping them to cope at the moment. They are not "bad" or "mad" for doing it. You could invite them to talk about their feelings, or to call you if she/he is having a difficult time. But only offer as much as you can cope with, and don't try to take responsibility for stopping them from hurting herself.

If you are someone who self-injures...

  • ...think about what your self-injury is "saying" about your feeling and your life. This will give you clues about problems that you need to work on. You might find it helpful to talk about your self-injury and what lies behind it with friends or a counselor. To find out about counseling, contact the counseling center


Student Health & Counseling Center 503.838.8313 | or e-mail: health@wou.edu

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