It’s common knowledge that people who struggle with substance use disorders often suffer from mental health challenges. However, the link between self-harm and substance abuse is frequently misunderstood.
Self-harm refers to any behavior that intentionally causes injury to the body. Common types of self-harm include:
- Cutting with a knife or other sharp object
- Using matches, a lighter, a cigarette, or a candle to burn the body
- Deliberately hitting parts of the body to leave bruises
- Picking at wounds to prevent them from healing
- Pulling out hair from the head or other parts of the body
Self-harm is linked to a number of serious mental health issues. For example:
- Bipolar disorder
- Gender dysphoria
- Eating disorders
Many people who harm themselves say that the behavior is a way of taking back control when they are faced with stress or trauma. Even if the rest of their circumstances seem impossible to deal with, self-harm lets them have control over what is happening to their body in that one moment. The act of harm and the pain it creates also serves as a temporary distraction from their inner emotional turmoil.
People who engage in self-harm behaviors are generally not suicidal. However, this type of behavior can be considered a risk factor for suicide. Researchers have found that a history of self-harm can be seen in about half of all cases of those who commit suicide.
You can learn more about self-harm by visiting the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website. The site also provides information about support groups for people struggling with mental illness and their loved ones.
Spotting Signs of Self-Harm
Most common among teens and young adults, these behaviors can be seen in people of all ages. Women are significantly more likely to engage in self-harm than men, regardless of age.
The signs of self-harm can be difficult to spot. However, it is common for people who engage in self-harm to wear long sleeves or clothing that is inappropriate for the weather in order to avoid showing their injuries. If they are questioned about scars, bruises, or bandages, they will often give vague explanations or blame their behavior on simple clumsiness.
It is a myth that self-harm is attention-seeking behavior. The majority of people who harm themselves will go out of their way to prevent anyone from noticing what is happening.
Substance Abuse Increases the Risk Associated with Self-Harm
While not all people who self-harm will abuse drugs or alcohol, substance abuse is commonly seen in this population. Many people who begin self-harming in their early teen years end up struggling with addiction as adults—especially when they do not have access to mental health treatment and a strong support system.
Like self-harm, substance abuse provides individuals struggling to manage their mental health with a temporary escape from their emotional pain. However, these destructive coping mechanisms eventually end up creating far more problems than they solve.
Although the effects of substance abuse can vary depending upon what substances are being used, it’s safe to say that any addictive substance will impair a person’s judgment and impulse control. This increases the likelihood of self-harm because it can make even relatively minor problems feel like insurmountable obstacles.
Engaging in self-harm behaviors while under the influence also increases the risk of accidentally causing serious or potentially life-threatening injury. For example, most people who cut themselves as a form of self-harm stick to the same general areas and have methods they use to avoid leaving wounds that would need stitches or require other types of medical attention. If they are not thinking clearly, they could accidentally cut too deeply or leave themselves open to a serious infection.
If you’re worried about a loved one’s behaviors, the best thing you can do is express your concerns in a caring and nonjudgmental way. Ask them how they’re feeling and listen to the answer without dismissing their concerns. Reassure them that they’re not alone, and that help is available.
When someone is struggling with both substance abuse and a mental illness that causes self-harm, they are said to have a co-occurring disorder or a dual diagnosis. For a lasting recovery, they need to address their drug or alcohol addiction as well as the mental illness that is leading to their self-harm behaviors. This is done with intensive therapy, medication, and holistic treatments that encourage healthy ways of dealing with difficult emotions.
At St. Joseph Institute for Addiction’s Pennsylvania substance abuse treatment center, we provide a full continuum of care that is personalized to fit the needs of clients with a dual diagnosis and based on scientifically sound principles. With our help, your loved one can break the cycle of self-harm and begin building the path to a brighter future.