Self-Harm – It’s More Than You Think

by: Brent Mulrooney, M.A.S.P., Ph.D. Candidate

What is Non-Suicidal Self Injury?

Non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI), commonly described as self-harm, involves deliberate acts (such as cutting) that directly damage the body but occur without suicidal intent. Typically, when we think of NSSI we think of individuals who cut, burn, punch or pinch themselves. In the psychological literature, these behaviours are referred to as direct NSSI. In an ideal setting, individuals who engage in self-harm behaviours either independently seek out psychological support in the form of therapy, or are noticed to be engaging in self-harm by individuals close to them and are encouraged to seek support at that time.

Indirect NSSI

However, individuals can also engage in other self-harm behaviours that are not as clearly noticed by others, since the methods of self-harm do not directly lead to bodily damage. These behaviours are termed indirect NSSI. 

‘Indirect’ methods of NSSI can include:

  • Involvement in abusive relationships
  • Substance abuse
  • Risky or reckless behaviour (e.g., reckless driving, bar fights, risky sexual practices)
  • Intentionally putting one’s body into physical danger (e.g., ‘daredevil’ acts)
  • Disordered eating behaviour

Since these activities are not often identified as self-injury, and can even be missed as warning signs by therapists, hospitals, and primary care physicians, it is important to notice problematic behaviours before their severity increases.

Men and Self-Harm

For a variety of reasons, individuals who identify as male are more likely to engage in indirect self-harm than those who identify as female (St. Germain & Hooley, 2012; Hooley & St. Germain, 2014). One such reason that has been proposed is that behaviors that have often been labeled as traditionally male expressions of anger and frustration sometimes contain indirect forms of NSSI (e.g., punching walls, picking fights with others, overconsumption of drugs and alcohol; Green & Jakupcak, 2016) Adherence to these traditional male gender norms is also associated with difficulties articulating thoughts and feelings, which can further increase an individual’s risk of engaging in self-harm (Levant et al., 2003). As a result, some men might not readily identify the intentionality behind some of the harmful actions described above.

Finding Help

Psychologists and therapists at CFIR are able to diagnose and guide the treatment related to direct and indirect self-harm for all individuals. We provide support to children, adolescents, adults, couples, and families who themselves struggle with self-harm, or have loved ones who do. We help clients establish solid networks of physical and emotional care and support We also provide specific psychological treatment for individuals who self-harm, supporting them through the cascading negative emotions that may precede or accompany instances of self-harm.

Brent Mulrooney, M.A.S.P. is a therapist at CFIR (Toronto). He has substantial interest and treatment experience in the realm of family functioning and relationships, anxiety and mood disorders, work and school success, addictions, violence (especially violence in the home), trauma, and gender identity and sexuality. Brent is nearing the completion of his doctoral degree in School and Clinical Child Psychology at the University of Toronto.