Is self harm illegal

Selfharming behaviour (auto-aggressive behavior, Cracks)

Self-injurious behavior is understood to mean behaviors or actions in which those affected consciously inflict injuries or wounds, e.g. by cutting, scratching or scratching the surface of the skin.

Short version:

  • Studies show that every fourth person injures himself or herself at least once by the age of 18.
  • SV is most often expressed through cuts.
  • Self-injurious behavior can often be traced back to prolonged emotional stress and occurs in conjunction with other mental illnesses.
  • In the first step of treatment, the wounds are cared for, then the psychological causes are explored and an adequate psychosocial therapy method is selected.

Information on this page:

More and more young people are injuring themselves. The reasons for this can be varied. The so-called "scratching" - the scratching or cutting open of forearms or legs with sharp objects such as knives, shards or razor blades - is the most common method of self-harm.

But there are many more: putting out burning cigarettes in your arm. Touching hot stove tops or pinching off certain parts of the body. In most cases, those affected feel a sense of relief from harming themselves. Some people get addicted to this condition over time and hurt themselves over and over again.

What is self-harming behavior?

Self-harm - also auto-aggressive - describes various behaviors in which those affected intentionally repeatedly harm themselves. According to studies, every fourth adolescent injures himself or herself at least once up to the age of 18. These are not life-threatening wounds, but rather small to medium-sized injuries to the skin or tissue surface of the body.

+++ More on the topic: Wounds & wound healing +++

In the DSM-5, the American guideline for mental disorders, the behavior is therefore also referred to as "non-suicidal self-harm syndrome" (short: NSVV). It occurs when those affected consciously inflict damage to their own body tissue on five or more days within a year.

In the ICD-10, the international classification system for diseases and health problems, self-harm is classified as "Intentional self-harm in an unspecified manner".

How is self-harming behavior expressed?

Self-injurious behavior can manifest itself in many ways. The most common type, however, is scratching. In doing so, the own body is repeatedly cut with sharp objects such as razor blades or broken glass. It is not uncommon for sufferers to use multiple self-harming methods that can change over time. These include:

  • to scratch oneself sore
  • scratch or cut themselves with sharp objects
  • hit or hit hard objects
  • pinch yourself
  • bite yourself
  • get burned
  • pulling hair out
  • excessive fingernail biting
  • the constriction of certain parts of the body
  • constant tearing open of healing wounds
  • Try to break your bones
  • Ingestion of harmful substances (e.g. spoiled food or cleaning agents)

The most common areas of the body injured are:

  • Forearms
  • Wrists
  • Upper arms
  • Thigh

The chest, stomach, face or genital area are less likely to be injured. The injuries are usually equally deep, grouped, lined up in parallel or symmetrically recognizable on the surface of the skin (also in the form of letters or words).

How does self-harming behavior arise?

Self-injurious behavior can arise due to long-term emotional stress, such as a disturbed parent-child relationship, frequent conflicts with parents or peers, and less often also with acute emotional stress such as the divorce of the parents, a separation or school problems.

But low self-esteem, despair, hopelessness, sexual abuse or neglect can also be triggers. In most cases, however, the behavior occurs as a symptom or accompanied by other mental illnesses, such as:

+++ More on the topic: Mental illnesses in children +++

Self-harming behavior usually begins between the ages of 12 and 15, but in some cases much earlier, less often later. For most of those affected it is an outlet to relieve strong internal tension or it serves as self-punishment because the affected person is angry at himself.

Most commonly, self-harm is used to break extremely uncomfortable feelings (e.g., despair, self-loathing, depression, anxiety) or memories that overwhelm those affected. After traumatic events such as abuse or mistreatment, recurring "flash-backs" - intense, intrusive memories of the trauma - can occur, to which those affected are helpless.

The self-harm causes an interruption or alleviation of the intensely uncomfortable state. Self-harming behavior thus serves as a kind of coping strategy. It is not uncommon for other young people (e.g. friends or classmates) to "learn" self-harming behavior: the self-harming actions are ultimately taken over by other young people.

The role of the Internet must also be taken into account here, where a lot of information on self-harming behavior is exchanged, which leads to social acceptance and "normalization" of this behavior.

Regardless of the reasons for self-harm, almost all of them feel relieved afterwards, and those affected usually feel better afterwards. That's why many people get injured over and over again. Some even become addicted by the endorphin release of their own body after the feeling that occurs after the injury.

+++ More on the topic: Psychotherapy for depression +++

Who is particularly affected by self-harm?

Girls between the ages of 12 and 15 have an increased risk of developing self-harming behavior. One of the reasons for this is that girls are more likely to direct negative feelings inward, i.e. against themselves.

They are also more likely to experience depression and anxiety, which increases the risk of self-harm. Boys, on the other hand, have a tendency to vent their anger and psychological tension on their surroundings. This is due, among other things, to the higher proportion of testosterone in the body.

How do you recognize self-harming behavior?

Self-harming behavior is a symptom that can occur in the context of various mental disorders, but also independently of them. A specialist in psychiatry or child and adolescent psychiatry will assess whether it is a mental illness (e.g. by means of a survey or questionnaire).

The diagnosis is made depending on other symptoms (e.g. depression, anxiety, hallucinations, social withdrawal, etc.) and psychosocial stress. The frequency of the hurtful behavior also plays an important role.

Often times, the wounds and injuries on the body are hidden out of shame. Those affected often wear long clothes that hide scars or fresh wounds, even in warm temperatures. Other warning signs include:

  • Mood changes
  • disturbed sleep behavior
  • frequent locking in the room or bathroom
  • Neglecting one's own interests (e.g. meeting friends, etc.)
  • Storing razor blades, knives or other sharp objects

How is self-harming behavior treated?

Acute physical injury treatment:

A cut or burn wound must always be treated immediately; disinfection is also necessary for superficial injuries. Patients have the right to be treated in a friendly and respectful manner - criticism of self-harming behavior is not appropriate!

+++ More on the topic: wound care +++

Psychosocial treatment:

Since self-harm can have different causes, it is important to adjust treatment accordingly. It is best to contact a psychologist or child and adolescent psychiatrist. Depending on the underlying disease or disorder, this person has the option of using special therapeutic methods for treatment.

The cognitive behavioral therapy shown. In the process, young people learn new coping strategies in order to be able to react better to stressful situations and to be able to control their emotions. Possible triggers for self-injurious behavior are analyzed so that they can be recognized in good time. Also Relaxation techniques such as yoga or progressive muscle relaxation can be part of the therapy.

As a first measure, in addition to a detailed education of those affected and their parents, the "Skills training"Proven: strategies are practiced here to replace self-injurious behavior, for example the use of strong sensory stimuli such as ice cubes in the neck or on the wrists, biting chili peppers, kneading a hedgehog ball, drinking pure lemon juice, etc. Also distraction by intensive concentration on physical or mental activities is used here.

If the self-injurious behavior is based on a serious mental illness (e.g. depression, borderline disorder), you can Psychiatric drugs can be used in addition to psychotherapy. Parents and other caregivers should be included in the treatment, especially in the case of adolescents. Behavioral therapeutic measures can also be used by them and contribute significantly to a successful treatment.

What can relatives do?

In any case, self-injurious behavior is to be seen as an emergency signal and must be taken seriously. However, it is often difficult for parents and loved ones to spot signs of self-harm. Young people are often ashamed of their behavior and therefore do not actively seek help.

For friends and siblings of an affected person, the following applies: Do not wait at the first signs, but rather talk to the parents or another adult confidant about it.

Tips for parents and caregivers:

  • Address the problem openly.
  • Help affected children or adolescents to understand what triggers the behavior in others (e.g. worry, fear, etc.)
  • Take the child's or young person's feelings seriously.
  • Don't put pressure on the child if they don't want to talk about it.
  • Do not issue ultimatums or prohibitions. Self-harming behavior cannot be suppressed.
  • Help the child identify the problem on their own.
  • Do not try too long to get the problem under control yourself, but get professional help as early as possible. You can find a child and youth psychiatrist in your area here.

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Tanja Unterberger
Medical review:
Dr. Christine Vesely
Editorial editing:
Nicole Kolisch

Status of medical information:

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