Self-Harm And Addiction | Dual Diagnosis

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D on April 19, 2021

Self-harm is the act of intentionally hurting one’s own body. Addiction and self-harm often occur simultaneously and dual diagnosis treatment seeks to treat both the substance use disorder and the subsequent self-harm behavior together.

Dual Diagnosis Self-Harm And Addiction

There is a lot of stigma surrounding self-harm, but it is more common than one might think. Research has shown that about 17% of all people will self-harm at some point during their lifetime.

Addiction and self-harm behaviors are often compared to each other because the act of self-harm exhibits many similar characteristics to an addiction.

The individual becomes addicted to the release that self-harm gives them, and they continue harming themselves even when they know it is wrong.

If someone is struggling with drug abuse, they may turn to self-harm as a means of coping, and vice versa.

By treating both substance abuse and self-harm behavior at the same time, there is a higher chance for recovery success.

What Is Self-Harm?

Self-harm is the act of hurting one’s own body intentionally to cause pain or scarring. It is not considered a mental disorder in itself, though it is considered to be a behavior that co-occurs with a variety of mental disorders.

Examples of self-harm include:

  • cutting yourself with a sharp object
  • burning yourself with a direct flame or heated object
  • pulling out your hair
  • punching yourself or other hard surfaces
  • breaking your bones
  • piercing your skin

While some of the self-harm acts performed can cause lasting and severe damage, it is important to note that someone who self-harms is not trying to kill themselves.

However, someone who self-harms may be suicidal and should be taken seriously.

Why Do People Self-Harm?

People who self-harm do so for a variety of reasons, just as the types of self-harm can be so different.

Reasons someone may self-harm include:

  • to punish themselves by inflicting pain
  • to release overwhelming emotions
  • to feel pain while they otherwise feel numb inside
  • to feel a sense of control
  • to show others that they need help

Regardless of the reason why an individual may self-harm, they are hurting on the inside and the only way they know to feel better is with coping mechanisms that are inappropriate.

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For some, self-harm can be a way of asking for help. While some individuals who self-harm will do everything they can to hide their physical scarring, there are those who put their scars on display as a way of letting others know that they need help, even if subconsciously.

Signs Of Self-Harm

If you are concerned that someone you love is engaging in self-harm, it is important to monitor them and get them any help they need.

Signs of self-harm include:

  • visible scarring in patterns or places that appear intentional
  • having frequent bruises, fresh cuts, or burns
  • wearing long sleeves and pants even when not appropriate for the weather
  • making excuses for injuries when questioned

The surface signs of self-harm are really just a sign that something much more serious is going on. This is why self-harm is considered a behavior because it is a consequence of underlying disorders.

The Relationship Between Addiction And Self-Harm

The relationship between addiction and self-harm is complicated, and it is not entirely clear which one leads to the other, as both instances are just as likely.

Someone who is already addicted to alcohol or drugs may turn to self-harm as a coping mechanism for the pain that drives their addictions.

On the other hand, someone who is already experimenting with self-harm may turn to drugs or alcohol as a means of self-harm in itself.

One study on a group of people with substance use disorders found that roughly 33% of people who have an alcohol or drug addiction also experimented with self-harm.

How Are Addiction And Self-Harm Treated?

If someone is struggling with substance abuse and using self-harm as a coping mechanism, it can be a very dangerous combination.

It is important to seek help and treat both the disorder and the subsequent behavior of self-harm in unison.

Addiction treatment will vary depending on the type of drug being abused and the severity of the substance use disorder.

Possible addiction treatments include:

  • detox
  • inpatient rehabilitation
  • outpatient rehabilitation
  • medication
  • therapy
  • support groups

Self-harm is not a disorder in itself, so treating it will depend on what mental disorder needs to be treated and the therapies which will best address this disorder.

Finding Treatment For Addiction And Self-Harm

If you or someone you love has an addiction and is turning to self-harm as a means of coping, it is important to seek help right away.

By calling our helpline, we can help you find:

Please do not be afraid to ask for help — we are standing by to help you get started on the right track today.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D on April 19, 2021
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