Professional Psychological Services

Click here to edit subtitle

Why People Cut

Cutting isn’t often talked about in mainstream media, but it should be. In 2011, Reuters reported that one in 12 teenagers engages in self-harming behavior. About 10 percent of that population goes on to self-harm in young adulthood. Girls are more likely to engage in self-harm than boys, and all races and backgrounds are susceptible to self-harm.

The United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) defines self-harm or self-injury as when someone intentionally damages or injures their body as a way of coping or expressing overwhelming emotional distress.

Self-harm isn’t limited to cutting. Burning, punching, picking, hitting, poisoning and even bone-breaking are some of the ways people engage in self-harm, according to WebMD.

According to the Mayo Clinic, a person who self-harms might be trying to do a variety of things, like manage or reduce severe distress or anxiety, or punish themselves for perceived faults. A person may also self-harm to feel a sense of control over his or her own personal body, feelings, or life situation.

Dr. David Rosen is a professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan and the director of the Section for Teenage and Young Adult Health at the University of Michigan Health Systems. In an interview with Web MD, he outlined what to look for if you're worried someone you know or love might be engaging in cutting or other forms of self-harm.

  1. Small, linear cuts
  2. Unexplained cuts and scratches
  3. Mood changes including depression, anxiety, or out-of-control behavior


ATTN: had the chance to talk via phone with Dr. Leslie Sim, a clinical child psychologist who works in the department of psychiatry and psychology at the Mayo Clinic.

ATTN: Do people who self-harm want to kill themselves?

LS: A lot of self-harm is what we call non-suicidal self-injury, so it’s not necessarily done in an attempt to die, it has a different kind of reason.

ATTN: What are some of the different reasons people may feel the need to self-harm?

LS: The biggest reason for self-harm tends to be to change one’s emotion. So to decrease emotional distress is a big reason, and I know it sounds really weird: Why would cutting or hurting yourself in some way make you less distressed? And there’s some different theories behind it, [like] whether or not it releases endorphins, and that changes the experience in the brain. Some people say it’s related to some distraction from negative emotion, putting the focus on physical, rather than emotional pain.

Some people get a sense of numbness from [self-harm]. Feeling terrible, shame, guilt or sadness, [self-harm] can help them regulate that.

ATTN: Are there high numbers of teenage girls self-harming?

LS: Higher than you think. I saw one study that said that up to 30 percent of girls have tried hurting themselves at one time. Fewer go on to keep using that behavior, but it’s a fairly common behavior among adolescents. Most of them grow out of it. But it’s concerning that they’d even think about [doing it].

ATTN: Are there specific mental illnesses that make someone more specific mental illnesses that make someone more susceptible to self-harm?

LS: Obviously depression is probably most thought to be associated with it, but you know there is some question: Is it really depression, or is it something like impulsivity? Because we see self-harm and other conditions as well.

90 percent of adults with borderline personality disorder have made suicide attempts or have engaged in this non-suicidal self-injury. So that’s [one] big condition associated with it.

ATTN: Is self-harm addictive?

LS: Some people say if there are endorphins, then that could become addictive. I’ve heard people describe it in that way. We also know that behaviors get reinforced. So if you do something and your anxiety goes away, that’s pretty powerful.

If this behavior works, you’re going to do it more and more and more, and this is a big problem we see with this behavior: It’s temporary relief. You never learn how to regulate the emotion.

ATTN: Are you aware of any correlation between self-harm and the "glamorization" of suicide and suicidal behavior in behavior in popular culture?

LS: I wonder about that. I know that there are definitely internet sites where people take pictures, and the other function of self-harm would be to communicate distress, to let other people know that you’re suffering. In that way, if you have difficult communicating your emotions, then this is a way to get help, or some help of care or nurturing. It is very interesting that there is a lot of disclosure of self-harm on the internet through various sites or different social media outlets.

Some people work very hard to hide their self-harm, but other people go to school and the other people in the school [will see] cuts on their arms, so maybe that gives people the idea.

We’ve heard stories of people harming themselves together, where it can be a bit contagious.

If you or someone you know is harming themselves, seek help.