The Downward Spiral of Self-Harm and Drug Abuse

March 17, 2016

Written by

Claudia Black Young Adult Center

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When a person has no healthy outlet for emotions like anger, frustration, self-hatred and sadness, he or she may turn to acts of self-harm as a way of expressing and dealing with distress. Self-harm, also known as self-mutilation or non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI), is a type of self-inflicted bodily injury that causes pain, bruising, or bleeding. Cutting is the most common form of self-harm, but hair pulling, biting, burning, head-butting, hitting, carving, scratching, skin picking, poisoning, and intentional interference with wound healing are also typical.

Self-harming behavior is most often seen among adolescents and young adults, between the ages of 12 and 24. For many, it serves as a means of coping with overwhelming emotions, and can briefly calm them, which gives them a feeling of relief. For some, the self-harming behavior leaves them with a bit of a “high” from a rush of endorphins.

However, the relief is short-lived and is usually followed by feelings of shame. This can cause them to want to punish themselves, leading to further episodes of self-harm or causing them to seek other outlets, like drugs and alcohol. They often find themselves caught in a downward spiral and may not know how to stop the spiral or even realize that they need help.

Signs of Self-Harm

Individuals who self-harm frequently keep their injuries hidden from friends and family. They cover the marks under clothing and hide behind closed doors. Sometimes, when the self-injuries are discovered, they are misidentified as a suicide attempt.

Some of the physical warning signs of self-harm include…

  • Noticeable scrapes, cut, scars, or burns that can’t be explained
  • Cuts and burns on the arms, legs, and stomach– places that are easy to access and cover up
  • Long-sleeved clothing and pants worn at inappropriate times, as an attempt to cover injuries
  • Razors, shards of glass, scissors, knives, or lighters found in places they don’t belong

Some of the emotional and social warning signs include…

  • Avoidance of social activities or social isolation
  • Prolonged time periods spent locked in rooms and bathrooms
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Struggle with personal identity
  • Problems with impulse control
  • Excessive visits to pro-self-harm websites

Self-Harm and Substance Abuse

Many young adults who deliberately self-harm also struggle with addiction to alcohol and other drugs. They often turn to drugs and alcohol for many of the same reasons they injure themselves—it’s an additional way to numb or hide the emotional pain they are feeling. Some may even use the substances as another method of self-harm through poisoning.

The combination of drug abuse and self-harm can be fatal. Drugs and alcohol interfere with judgment and reaction times, causing self-injuring behaviors to be much more dangerous. Being under the influence makes it much more likely that the person could accidentally go too far—cutting too deep, for example—without realizing it, leading to a fatal injury.

Help is Available

When someone is struggling with both self-harm and addiction, treatment can be complicated. They need specialized treatment that is highly-personalized based on the individuals’ particular needs and behaviors. They also need a treatment program that can address both problems at the same time by finding the root causes of their need to self-harm and self-medicate. The staff at the Claudia Black Young Adult Center specializes in understanding the unique issues that young adults face, and can help them develop healthier ways to cope. Reach out to one of our Intake Coordinators by phone at 855-333-6075, or through a Live Chat on our website.