Join Date: June 30, 2004
Location: Van Island, BC
"We all do things that aren't good for us and that may harm us. We also do things that inflict injury but that are primarily intended for other purposes. Some self-harm is culturally sanctioned, while other types are seen as pathological. Where does one draw lines?
An easy line to draw is that of deliberate, immediate physical harm being done. For example, cutting your arm or hitting yourself with a hammer are clearly self-injurious acts. Things like overeating, smoking, not exercising, etc., are harmful to a person in the long run but immediate physical damage is not the desired effect of the behaviors. What, then, about things like tattooing and piercing, where physical modification of the body is deliberate and is the desired effect?
The first step in classifying self-harm, as demonstrated by Favazza (1996), is to sort out what makes a type of self-injury pathological, as opposed to culturally-sanctioned. Socially sanctioned self-harm, he found, falls into two groups: rituals and practices. Body modification (piercings, tattoos, etc) can fall into either class.
Rituals are distinguished from practices in that they reflect community tradition, usually have deep underlying symbolism, and represent a way for an individual to connect to the community. Rituals are done for purposes of healing (mostly in primitive cultures), expressions of spirituality and spiritual enlightenment, and to mark place in the social order. Practices, on the other hand, have little underlying meaning to the practitioners and are sometimes fads. Practices are done for purposes of ornamentation, showing identification with a particular cultural group, and in some cases, for perceived medical/hygienic reasons.
Non-socially sanctioned (pathological) self-harm can be classified as either suicidality, self-mutilation (which is further broken down into major, stereotypic, and superficial/moderate), or unhealthful behavior.
Kahan and Pattison (1984; Pattison and Kahan, 1983) tackled these taxonomic problems. They began by identifying three components of self-harming acts: directness, lethality, and repetition.
refers to how intentional the behavior is; if an act is completed in a brief period of time and done with full awareness of its harmful effects and there was conscious intent to produce those effects, it is considered direct. Otherwise, it is an indirect method of harm.
refers to the likelihood of death resulting from the act in the immediate or near future. A lethal act is one that is highly likely to result in death, and death is usually the intent of the person doing it.
refers to whether of not the act is done only once or is repeated frequently over a period of time It is defined simply by whether or not the act is done repeatedly.
The following table gives examples of each combination of these factors:
Repetitive In Nature? Direct Behaviors Indirect Behaviors
High lethality Low lethality High lethality Low lethality
yes taking small doses of arsenic over time self-injury: cutting, burning, hitting, etc. type 1 diabetic not injecting insulin smoking, alcoholism
no gunshot wound to head major self-mutilation terminal cancer patient refusing chemo walking around downtown alone at 3 a.m.
Definitions of moderate/superficial self-injury
Perhaps the best definition of self-injury is found in Winchel and Stanley (1991), who define it as
...the commission of deliberate harm to one's own body. The injury is done to oneself, without the aid of another person, and the injury is severe enough for tissue damage (such as scarring) to result. Acts that are committed with conscious suicidal intent or are associated with sexual arousal are excluded.
Mosby's Medical, Nursing, and Allied Health Dictionary (1994) contains the following definition:
Self-mutilation, high risk for
A nursing diagnosis . . . defined as a state in which an individual is at high risk to injure but not kill himself or herself, and that produces tissue damage and tension relief. Risk factors include being a member of an at-risk group, inability to cope with increased psychological/physiological tension in a healthy manner, feelings of depression, rejection, self-hatred, separation anxiety, guilt, and depersonalization, command hallucinations, need for sensory stimuli, parental emotional deprivation, and a dysfunctional family.
Groups at risk include clients with borderlines personality disorder (especially females 16 to 25 years of age), clients in a psychotic state (frequently males in young adulthood), emotionally disturbed and/or battered children, mentally retarded and autistic children, clients with a history of self-injury, and clients with a history of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
Malon and Berardi (1987) summarize the process they believe underlies self-injury:
Investigators have discovered a common pattern in the cutting behavior. The stimulus...appears to be a threat of separation, rejection, or disappointment. A feeling of overwhelming tension and isolation deriving from fear of abandonment, self-hatred, and apprehension about being unable to control one's own aggression seems to take hold. The anxiety increases and culminates in a sense of unreality and emptiness that produces an emotional numbness or depersonalization. The cutting is a primitive means for combating the frightening depersonalization.
This seems to coincide with the definition given in Mosby's of someone susceptible to self-harm.
This site is concerned mainly with moderate/superficial self-harm, which is direct, repetitive, and of low lethality. Stereotypic self-mutilation tends also to be direct, repetitive, and of low lethality, whereas major self-mutilation (discussed below) is direct, not repetitive, and of low lethality. Moderate self-harm can be further divided into impulsive and compulsive.
Varieties of Self-Harm
Self-injury is separated by Favazza (1986) into three types. Major self-mutilation (including such things as castration, amputation of limbs, enucleation of eyes, etc) is fairly rare and usually associated with psychotic states. Stereotypic self-injury comprises the sort of rhythmic head-banging, etc, seen in autistic, mentally retarded, and psychotic people. The most common form of self-mutilation, and the topic of this site, is called superficial or moderate. This can include cutting, burning, scratching, skin-picking, hair-pulling, bone-breaking, hitting, deliberate overuse injuries, interference with wound healing, and virtually any other method of inflicting damage on oneself. Both in clinical studies and in an informal Usenet survey, the most popular act was cutting, and the most popular sites were wrists, upper arms, and inner thighs. Many people have used more than one method, but even they tend to favor one or two preferred methods and sites of abuse.
Favazza (1996) further breaks down superficial/moderate self-injury into three types: compulsive, episodic, and repetitive. Compulsive self-injury differs in character from the other two types and is more closely associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Compulsive self-harm comprises hair-pulling (trichotillomania), skin picking, and excoriation when it is done to remove perceived faults or blemishes in the skin. These acts may be part of an OCD ritual involving obsessional thoughts; the person tries to relieve tension and prevent some bad thing from happening by engaging in these self-harm behaviors. Compulsive self-harm has a somewhat different nature and different roots from the impulsive (episodic and repetitive types).
Both episodic and repetitive self-harm are impulsive acts, and the difference between them seems to be a matter of degree. Episodic self-harm is self-injurious behavior engaged in every so often by people who don't think about it otherwise and don't see themselves as "self-injurers." It generally is a symptom of some other psychological disorder.
What begins as episodic self-harm can escalate into repetitive self-harm, which many practitioners (Favazza and Rosenthal, 1993; Kahan and Pattison, 1984; Miller, 1994; among others) believe should be classified as a separate Axis I impulse-control disorder. Favazza (1997) suggests that until repetitive self-harm is recognized as a separate category in the DSM, practitioners should diagnose it on Axis I as 312.3, Impulse-Control Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.
Repetitive self-harm is marked by a shift toward ruminating on self-injury even when not actually doing it and self-identification as a self-injurer (Favazza, 1996). Episodic self-harm becomes repetitive when what was formerly a symptom becomes a disease in itself (as seen in the way many people who self-injure describe self-harm as being "addictive"). It is impulsive in nature, and often becomes a reflex response to any sort of stress, positive or negative. Just like smokers who reach for a cigarette when they're overwhelmed, repetitive self-injurers reach for a lighter or a blade or a belt when things get to be too much.
In a study of bulimics who self-harm, Favaro and Santonastaso (1998), used a statistical technique known as factor analysis to try to distinguish between which kinds of acts were compulsive in nature and which were impulsive. They report that vomiting, severe nail biting, and hair pulling loaded on the compulsive factor, whereas suicide attempts, substance abuse, laxative abuse, and skin cutting and burning loaded on the impulsive factor." ~ Secret Shame