Is there a link between self-harming and depressive disorders in young adults?

Link between self-harming and depressive disorders

Many studies have illustrated the alarming rates of self-harming behaviours, especially among young adults and teenagers. Self-injurious behaviours often get linked to other mental health conditions such as:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Low self-worth and low self-esteem
  • Feeling suicidal or suicidal intent


Self-harm (or self-injury) is not a mental health condition by itself, but self-harming is indicative of another mental health disorder and often denotes a more serious emotional problem.

Deliberate self-harm -symptoms

Self-harming behaviours feature several behavioural rituals and symptoms which commonly involve:

  • Scratching
  • Picking at wounds all of which may interfere with the healing process
  • Cutting
  • Burning
  • Pulling out hair
  • Piercing the skin with hot or sharp objects

Why do people engage in self-harming behaviours?

Self-harming is often misunderstood and frequently gets confused with suicidal behaviour or a suicide attempt.

But, very often, self-harm is done without suicidal intent and is frequently a non-suicidal act.

People must be aware that self-harming behaviours do not typically have a single cause or reason.

In many ways, when an adolescent engages in self-harm, it is often a coping strategy in times of intense stress or overwhelm.

When someone decides to self-harm, there are often several emotions at play – one of them is the desire to escape or seek relief from whatever external life factors may be upsetting them.

Self-injurious behaviour

Self-injurious behaviour

There are many reasons why an adolescent may engage in self-harm – some of which include:

  • A release from emotional tension
  • To distract themselves from inner conflict
  • To seek relief from depression and anxiety
  • Ritualistic self-harm often gives people a sense of control over their body, feelings and emotions
  • To punish themselves for perceived faults and mistakes

Risk of self-harming groups

Research suggests that self-harming behaviours among adolescents and young people are increasingly prevalent, particularly within child and adolescent age groups who are more likely to engage in self-harm when experiencing depression.

Teenagers and young people often experience intense, volatile emotions but frequently don’t have the adequate coping strategies to manage complex emotional pain.

Risk factors

Adolescents often struggle to understand why they feel the way they do, especially for those suffering from clinical depression.

Self-injurious behaviours may occur for many reasons, all of which are often difficult for young adults to self-report.

Some of the key risk factors among adolescents who engage in self-harm include:

  • Unstable or non-supportive family life
  • Having friends who engage in self-harming or self-harming behaviours
  • Bullying
  • Abuse and neglect
  • Other non-diagnosed psychiatric mental health conditions such as PTSD, eating disorders, borderline personality disorder, depression and anxiety

Another risk factor

One additional factor that puts adolescents at increased risk of self-harm involves issues around sexual identity. Other factors such as socioeconomic status and race do not get reported as significant indicators of self-harm.


Young women who engage in self-harm are more likely to cut themselves, whereas young men are more likely to turn to substance use (such as drug use or alcohol), bruise themselves, or try to get other people to hurt them.

Self-harm and depression

Studies show that there is a strong correlation between self-injurious behaviours, deliberate self-harm and depression among adolescents.

Major depressive disorders can cause intense emotions and emotional pain such as:

  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Anhedonia and a lack of emotional depth and range
  • Irritability and anger
Depression, anxiety and injuries

Depression, anxiety and injuries

People who suffer from depression and anxiety experience intense pain and anger, and all this can lead to the urge to hurt oneself.

Injuries can also enable the release of endorphins in the body, leading to feelings of euphoria and the temporary release of emotional pain and tension.

Feeding the injuries cycle

Depressive episodes that leave an adolescent feeling numb can be just as unpleasant as those fueled by rage and anger – self-harming replaces this numbness with pain, hence why behaviours such as self-harm may seem attractive to someone who struggles to feel anything.

Self-harm may also lead to intense feelings of guilt which tend to feed the self-harming cycle.

Experts explain that if self-harming and the depressive episodes that cause them remain untreated, then a one-off self-harm episode may turn into a dangerous habit.


It’s unfortunate that approximately 10% of young people self-harm, with some reports suggesting that this figure could even be as high as 20%.

Most young people begin self-harming around the age of twelve. Some studies have reported that self-harming can affect anyone and that no typical young person or adolescent self-harms.


Like other disorders (such as addiction), self-harm is described as a way for people to relieve any built-up pressure caused by distressing or upsetting events.

Self-harm in adolescents

When adolescents self-harm: The implication

School children and young people may experience temporary relief when self-harming, all of which often gets followed by a pervasive cycle of guilt, shame and panic.

All these emotions frequently feed the self-harm cycle leading to more profound psychiatric issues and behaviours.

Therefore, children who self-harm must get offered the proper treatment and support from family members, school and the community.

Self-harm myths

According to research, there are a bucket load of myths surrounding self-harm. Generally, mental health issues seem to elicit a range of stigmas and misunderstandings, and self-harm offers no exemptions.


Most of the stigma surrounding self-harm tends to feature a specific thinking pattern about self-harming that is inaccurate (and incredibly unhelpful). This thinking involves the belief that:

  • Self-harm is attention-seeking
  • Self-harm is what goths do
  • People who self-harm must enjoy it
  • Only girls engage in self-harm
  • People who self-harm are suicidal or is something that gets connected to suicide attempts

Is there help for young people who self harm?

There are plenty of treatment options available to young people and adolescents who engage in acts of self-harm.


Addressing negative feelings is a huge component of healing and recovery from self-harm.

Young people frequently find it hard to open up and talk about their feelings, which often puts them at increased risk of mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders and self-harm.

Talking to someone they trust can be incredibly beneficial. It helps decrease feelings of low self-esteem, lowers the risk for self-injurious behaviours, and many other risk factors. Treatment associated with recovery from self-harm include:

  • Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT): The focus with CBT is to build coping strategies and problem-solving skills, all of which are very effective when treating self-harm.
  • Psychodynamic therapy: This helps to identify the problems causing a young person to self-harm. It is helpful for people to speak to their GP or trusted health professional about what treatment options will best suit them.
  • Support groups: speaking to other youngsters can also be incredibly beneficial – groups such as and are just some of the charities offering help and support to young people with mental health problems such as self-harming.

Additional symptoms

In addition to some of the symptoms already mentioned, experts suggest that there may be other warning signs of self-harm to look out for, these include:

  • Withdrawal or isolation from daily life
  • Signs of depression such as low mood, a lack of motivation or interest and tearfulness
  • Changes in eating habits/sleeping habits
  • Risk-taking behaviours (taking drugs, drinking alcohol and unprotected sex)
  • Unexplained cuts, bruises and marks
  • Covering up all the time, even when the weather is hot (wearing long sleeves and coats in humid temperatures)
  • Talking about self-harming or suicide
  • Expressing feelings of failure, uselessness or loss of hope
  • Lacking in energy and quieter than usual

What to do if you suspect someone of self-harm

Mental health professionals explain that the cultivation of mindfulness and compassion is imperative for self-harm, particularly in young people.

Approaching a young person about their mental health is never easy, and often, they may not want to speak or feel ready to talk about their issues with self-harm.

The key is to allow an adolescent the space to lead the discussion and be mindful not to put undue pressure on them.

Experts say it takes a lot for people to open up about self-harm. Therefore, conversations must take place calmly and without pressure or judgement.

Getting profesional mental health support

Get in touch

If you suspect that your teenager may be self-harming, then it’s important that you speak to a mental health professional who can offer you guidance and support. Get in touch with one of our specialist team members today.

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