Deliberate self-harm, or self-injury, is when a person inflicts physical harm on himself or herself, usually in secret. Some victims of sexual assault may use self-harm to cope with the difficult or painful feelings, but it is only a temporary relief, not a healthy way to deal with the trauma of sexual assault. Self-harm can cause permanent damage to the body, as well as additional psychological problems that hinder the healing process, such as guilt, depression, low self-esteem or self-hatred, along with a tendency toward isolation.1

Note: Deliberate self-harm is not necessarily inflicted with suicidal intent, and engaging in self-harm does not necessarily mean that someone wants to die.

Those who inflict harm on themselves may believe it “helps” them cope with their experiences and their emotions. For sexual assault victims, self injury may:1

  • Provide a way to express difficult or hidden feelings.
    • It’s common for victims to feel numb or empty as a result of sexual assault.
    • Engaging in self-harm may provide a temporary sense of feeling again, as well as a way to express anger, sadness, grief or emotional pain.
  • Provide a way of communicating to others that support is needed.
  • Provide a distraction from emotional pain.
  • Provide self-punishment for what they believe they deserve.
  • Provide proof that they are not invisible.
  • Provide a feeling of control: It’s not uncommon to feel that self-harm is the only way to have a sense of control over life, feelings, body, especially if other things in life are out of control.

Some common methods of self-harm include:1

  • Cutting
  • Burning
  • Biting
  • Hitting the body
  • Pulling out hair
  • Scratching and picking at sores on skin
  • Eating Disorders
  • Substance Abuse

Friends and family of sexual assault victims may be among the first to recognize the signs of self-injury. It may be helpful for a survivor to share their experiences and concerns with a qualified service provider who can help him or her find a healthier, positive alternative to alleviate the pain from sexual assault, such as a counselor or psychologist.1

  • It may be helpful for the survivor to have the help and support of a loved one while finding a counselor.
  • If the survivor feels that talking with someone is too overwhelming, you can urge him or her to write down the problem.

Following are alternatives to self-harm that may help the survivor until he or she is able to meet with a professional:1

  • Recognize the choices you have NOW; ask yourself what YOU need.
  • Choose to put off self-harm for specific amounts of time until a professional can be contacted (e.g., 15 minute increments).
  • Countdown to relaxation (10… 9… 8… 7…); start meditation exercises; pay attention to your breathing and the rhythmic motions of your body.
  • Write in a diary or journal.
  • Make a list of people you can call for support; connect with others (group, one-on-one).
  • Plan something new and exciting to do with friends.
  • Take up a craft (needlework, quilting, painting, etc.).
  • Play video games, listen to the radio, watch television as a distraction.

It is important to eat well, exercise and be kind to oneself. While not a solution in itself, doing all these things contributes to increased mood stability, and a general better sense of well being that will provide a greater sense of happiness on the inside and outside.1

If you or someone you know is contemplating self-harm, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE or visit the Online Hotline at

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call 911 immediately. If there’s no one in your life that you feel comfortable talking to about your suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK.



  1. Reach Out US. 2009.…

This product was supported by grant number 2009-D1-BX-KO23 awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this product are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.


 Sections on this page have been adapted from: Rainn



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