Research indicates that approximately 4% of adults engage in intentional self-injury. The behavior functions similarly for adults as for younger people, by providing temporary relief of emotional pain or numbness. Over time, relying on self-harm to regulate painful emotions creates a cycle of emotional avoidance that limits a person’s ability to experience pleasure and joy, and inhibits opportunities for learning and practicing other, more adaptive coping mechanisms. While in some adults self-injury serves to communicate needs and express pain and suffering, for others it is a source of great shame and leads to isolation, avoidance of experiences in which scars may be seen, and deepening loneliness and depression.
Effective treatment of self-injury in adults involves a careful behavioral assessment, followed by an individualized, skills-based treatment plan. When delivered by a qualified team of professionals, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is the gold-standard of treatment for self-injurious behaviors, and has been shown to be effective for the majority of people. Other interventions may involve Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), family therapy, or adjunctive pharmacotherapy.