The Link Between Self-Harm and Addiction

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Life can be difficult at times, especially considering the variety of stressors individuals experience in their daily lives. These stressors may include issues at work, school, home, and in social situations. In a perfect world, everyone would be equipped with positive coping mechanisms to help them work through feelings of stress, sadness, or fear. However, many people lack the tools they need to manage intense feelings and situations.

When an individual lacks the proper tools to cope, they may begin to rely on unhealthy coping mechanisms. The most common unhealthy coping mechanisms include self-harm and substance abuse. These negative mechanisms of coping provide individuals with temporary relief from issues such as stress, depression, and trauma. However, self-harm and addiction both create more issues for the individual in the long run. This only exacerbates the symptoms they were attempting to self-medicate.

What is Self-Harm?

Self-harm is described as self-imposed and deliberate destruction of a person’s body. Typically, this action is not a suicide attempt, but an unhealthy way for an individual to cope with emotional pain. Some individuals might only self-harm a few times, however, some people adopt this action as a coping mechanism – causing self-harm to become a long-term and repetitive behavior.

Individuals who self-harm may do so in several ways, including:

  • Cutting
  • Burning
  • Carving words or symbols into one’s skin
  • Breaking bones
  • Hitting or punching
  • Biting
  • Pulling out hair
  • Stabbing
  • Picking at healing wounds to deliberately stop the healing process

Anyone who is dealing with significant emotional distress and lacks healthy coping mechanisms is at risk of self-harm. However, some people may be at an increased risk for this harmful form of coping mechanism.

Individuals who are at the highest risk for self-harm include:

  • Females
  • People in their teens or early 20s
  • Individuals with friends who also self-injure
  • People with an unstable identity or sexuality
  • Individuals with mental health disorders
  • People suffering from addiction or substance abuse

According to research, 1 in 5 females engages in self-harming behavior, compared to 1 in 7 males. Additionally, approximately 2 million cases of self-harm are reported annually.[1]

What is the Connection Between Self-Harm and Addiction?

Self-harm is linked to various mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, BPD, PTSD, and eating disorders. However, one of the most common conditions connected to self-harm is substance use disorder (SUD), better known as addiction.

Self-harm and addiction are both complicated conditions, so it is difficult to pinpoint which illness causes the other.  Some individuals might begin with self-harming behaviors and begin to abuse substances as a form of self-harm. However, others may have had an addiction first, causing them to self-harm to cope with the intense feelings associated with their substance abuse.

Self-harm and addiction are both dangerous conditions on their own. When combined, this co-occurrence tends to escalate quickly in severity. Substances tend to numb feelings of pain, decrease critical-thinking abilities, and cause limited motor skills. Due to this, a person’s severity of self-harm might drastically increase, leading to life-threatening consequences.

Self-Harm and Substance Abuse Statistics

One of the similarities between self-harm and addiction is that both of these conditions are difficult to track. Because these issues cause feelings of shame or guilt, many individuals do not admit they are suffering from self-harm or addiction. As a result, statistics on self-harm and addiction are limited and typically do not account for a large percentage of individuals who suffer from these behaviors.

Important statistics regarding self-harm include:[2]

  • 47% of bisexual females have self-harmed.
  • 17% of adolescents/young adults have engaged in self-harm at least once.
  • 15% of college students have reported self-harming behaviors.
  • 5% of adults have reported self-harm at some point in their lives.
  • 1% of children ages 5-10 have admitted to self-harm.

Many of these statistics could be higher if self-harm was not associated with feelings of guilt, shame, and ridicule from peers. Additionally, individuals suffering from any form of mental health condition, substance use disorder, or bullying issues are more likely to deal with self-harm than their peers.

Treating Self-Harm and Addiction as Co-Occurring Disorders

While treating self-harm and addiction might be difficult at times, recovery is possible. Treatment for self-harm and substance abuse will focus on helping patients to cope with their life without self-harming or abusing substances.

Because self-harm is typically a sign of an underlying mental health condition, treatment will start with a psychiatric evaluation. Most frequently, individuals dealing with self-harm and addiction suffer from one of the following disorders:[3]

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
  • Eating disorders

Once the underlying condition is identified, the patient will be treated for their new diagnosis. Typically, self-harming and substance abuse behaviors will decrease as a result of their recovery from a given mental health condition.

For good measure, individuals will also undergo treatment for addiction and self-harm in the form of psychotherapy and behavioral therapy. This will teach patients to utilize positive coping mechanisms, rather than unhealthy ones such as self-harm and addiction.

Find Treatment for Self-Harm and Substance Abuse Today!

When self-harm and substance abuse co-occur, the symptoms can get serious very quickly. Dealing with these mental health conditions on your own may prove to become life-threatening. If you or a loved one suffer from self-harm and addiction, you might want to consider a dual-diagnosis treatment program. New Jersey Interventions is a program dedicated to helping you and your loved one find a treatment center that fits your individual and unique needs. Contact us today for more information on how to find treatment for self-harm and addiction.



Medically Reviewed: September 22, 2021

Dr Ashley

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Dr Ashley Murray obtained her MBBCh Cum Laude in 2016. She currently practices in the public domain in South Africa. She has an interest in medical writing and has a keen interest in evidence-based medicine.

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

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