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Substance Abuse And Self-Harm

Dr. Richard Foster, LICDC-CS

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Richard Foster, LICDC-CS

March 13, 2019

If you know someone who is engaging in self-harm, it may be helpful to know how substance abuse may affect self-harm, what treatments are available for each, how to get help for a loved one in need of healing, and common signs of both substance abuse and self-harm.

Recent studies reported in an article by the U.S. National Library of Medicine explain that self-harm may affect between one-third and one-half of all adolescents. Of those affected, 70 percent attempted suicide at least once, while 55 percent attempted suicide more than once.

Substance abuse may pose a dangerous risk for self-harm, as the effects of some substances may cause greater injury than intended. This post defines substance abuse and self-harm and highlights key points regarding treatment. Treatment remains the most effective way to help a person engaging in self-harm and who suffers from substance abuse.

It may be difficult for some of us to understand how or why people harm themselves. However, self-harm (also called self-mutilation) is actually quite common, and may be used as a coping mechanism for people who are struggling. Some people who self-harm may also be abusing substances. While the two are not linked, substance abuse can greatly affect the way a person self-harms due to the way a person’s body and mind are affected by some substances.

How Substance Abuse Affects Self-Harm

Stated simply by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “drinking alcohol or doing drugs while hurting yourself increases the risk of a more severe injury than intended.” Substance abuse works by interrupting the brain’s communication system. Abusing substances may release an excess of happy chemicals in the brain. This is what happens when, say, opioids are abused. Self-harm works much the same way. When people cut themselves, they may feel an immediate release of endorphins. This is similar to the “rush” feeling experienced by those abusing substances. When a person is victim to both substance abuse and self-harm, that person is at heightened risk for the adverse effects of each.

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What To Do For Those Suffering

If someone close to you is engaging in self-harm and substance abuse, you may feel discouraged. But don’t despair. There is help available for both substance abuse and self-harm, and we at are ready to help you find it.

The most effective treatment for substance abuse is still therapy at an inpatient rehab center. Rehab facilities vary on methods offered, but many utilize a combination of treatment approaches. One of the most effective treatment methods is cognitive behavioral therapy. This form of therapy helps a person build healthy lifestyle habits. It also requires abstinence from substance use.

Medication Assisted Therapy (MAT)

Medication assisted therapy (MAT) may be used when a person needs relief from harsh withdrawal symptoms. Some medications also help a person taper off use of substances, replacing the effects of substances without fostering addiction. MAT requires monitoring, so it is usually used only when a person attends inpatient facilities.

Individual or Group Counseling

Group or individual counseling may give recovering individuals the outlet they need to heal. A recovering person often has a myriad of thoughts and emotions. Counseling offers a way to deal with them. When a person is part of a support group, he or she has the chance to connect with others who are experiencing similar treatment obstacles.

Therapy (especially family therapy) is also one of the most effective forms of treatment for self-harm. Adolescents tend to turn to self-harm as a way to cope with traumatic events or issues. Encouraging open lines of communication can make a huge difference for teens who feel they have no other outlet. For those who have already turned to self-harm, therapy and other forms of treatment may help a teen learn to cope and open the lines of communication once more.

Signs Of Substance Abuse

Signs of substance abuse varies for each type of substance, but some behaviors may be characteristic of most substance use disorders. These may include:

  • Inability to stop using drugs or alcohol, even if the person wants to
  • Lack of interest in things that used to be important, such as hobbies or extracurricular activities, or spending time with friends or family
  • Neglecting obligations due to substance abuse (i.e. falling behind in school, poor performance at work)
  • Risky behavior, especially to obtain drugs or alcohol
  • Becoming secretive, often to hide risky behavior or drug abuse
  • Developing tolerance; needing a higher or more frequent dose of a substance to get the desired effect
  • Withdrawal symptoms occur when not abusing the substance

Signs Of Self-Harm

Self-harm does occur in adults, but is most common among adolescents. If you are worried your teen may be self-harming, here are things to watch for:

  • Noticeable cuts or burns on abdomen, arms, or legs
  • Presence of box cutters, knives, razor blades, or other sharp things hidden in a teen’s room
  • Difference in how the teen responds to adverse situations: teens engaging in self-harm may go to the bathroom or his or her bedroom and lock the door for up to hours after a bad encounter or bad day
  • Someone close to the teen notices burns or cut marks, or that he or she is removing body hair
  • Pay attention to the teen’s friends: do they cut or burn themselves?
  • If a sibling catches teens cutting or burning themselves, or removing body hair, or finds evidence of self-harm (bloody razors after the teen has been in the bathroom, for example)

Help With Finding Treatment

Finding your teen is struggling with self-harm or substance abuse can be devastating. Perhaps you want to move forward with treatment, but don’t know where to turn. That’s where we come in. We have the resources you need to find the rehab center best suited for your needs. We are ready to answer your questions and help find your loved one the treatment he or she deserves. Contact us today at to learn more.

National Alliance On Mental Illness - Self-Harm

U.S. National Library of Medicine - Nonsuicidal Self Injury In Adolescents

U.S. National Library Of Medicine - Self-Harm

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