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  • Writer's pictureVince Botto Jr

What is Self-Harm and Does Sleep Play a Role?

Individuals typically associate self-harm with suicide. But is that true when we discuss “self-harm?”

Not always. Non-Suicidal Self-Harm is when somebody injures themselves on purpose without the intent to be fatal and is also the clinical term. This could be cutting their skin, pulling hair out, picking at wounds to prevent healing, breaking bones, breaking things that cause bodily injury, and many more examples. The act of thinking or committing suicide does not fall under the category of non-suicidal self-harm.

Is self-harm a mental health disorder? According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), suicide is not a mental health disorder. However, it is associated with several mental health conditions, for example, borderline personality disorder, depression, eating disorders, anxiety, post-traumatic distress disorder to name some. It is a behavior that leads individuals to identify as having severe emotional distress which could have co-occurring disorders or other psychopathologies that are happening.

The Legacy of Behaviorism: Do this and you’ll get that.” - Alfie Kohn

Typically, self-harm is a form of coping, thus it is essential for individuals who are beginning or are self-harming to get the help they need to begin the process of recovering right away. Just like any behavior, the earlier the intervention begins the easier and better chances there is of a reduction of that behavior, whereas the longer the behavior happens the more severe form of interventions are needed.

March is Self-Injury Awareness Month and we have seen an increase year over year in the past decade. Right now, statistics show that nearly 4% of the population in the United States uses non-suicidal self-harm as a form of coping. That means nearly 1 in 21 people you know use self-harm as a form of coping.

Not only is March Self-Injury Awareness Month, but the first week of March was National Sleep Awareness Week. Now, why is that important to discuss after the fact? Well, sleep is an essential part of our lives; it takes up nearly one-third of our life. Last summer we wrote a two-part series discussing the functions of sleep and tips to enable better sleep.

What is discussed inside part one of the “Why Sleep Matters More Than We Realize” series is how we have this misperception around sleep deprivation and how much sleep we need. When we dig into the numbers we see that lack of sleep becomes a bigger problem than we could ever imagine from the outside looking in. According to the American Sleep Association in 2021, they determined that 37% of 20 to 39-year-olds report short sleep duration (under 6 hours), whereas 40% of 40 to 59-year-olds report short sleep duration (under 6 hours). This doesn’t include the 3 in 4 high school students who aren’t getting enough sleep according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2015.

These numbers are shocking, and what we know about sleep is that just two days of not getting a full night of sleep (which is 7 hours minimum) can result in having the effects of sleep deprivation.

What are the effects of sleep deprivation you might ask? Well, it is similar to food deprivation. Of course, most individuals wouldn’t be considered to have severe sleep deprivation (4 hours or less of sleep for two weeks in a row), but even getting 6 hours of sleep for two weeks can lead to minor sleep deprivation, which only takes two to three nights of 6 hours or less to begin to see the effects of sleep deprivation.

Whereas, different sleep conditions can be part of different mental health conditions, therefore it is important to monitor your sleep to make sure if you aren’t getting enough you see someone about it. The reason being is sleep deprivation acts the same way malnutrition acts, our brain stops functioning as effectively, certain regions of the brain will not fire correctly or work as efficiently, and most importantly because of these two factors, we begin to act and feel in ways that are not consistent with reality. Thus, if you are having sleep difficulties like mid-night awakening, insomnia, early morning awakening, or even difficulty falling asleep and it might be because of mental health conditions, the lack of sleep or disturbances might amplify those conditions.

Have you ever gone on vacation and stayed up longer than you should, potentially drank alcohol or indulged in food before going to sleep, then done it a few nights in a row because you had to get it in? What happened next is when you came home you felt awful, became depressed, “had the post-vacation blues” which is a real function, but not for the reasons most think. Our body doesn’t care if we are on vacation or it’s a normal day in the life, we need to get good, effective sleep so our brains function properly. Thus, many of us who go on vacation and indulge don’t realize that when we come home we might be experiencing sleep deprivation which is only worsening our post-vacation blues.

All this is to say, our lives can be complicated and hard to navigate through. Non-Suicidal Self-Injury is real and millions struggle with it each and every day. It is important for all of us to know and understand that this behavior is a coping mechanism that these individuals battle and struggle with. If you know somebody, the earlier you intervene the better, and coming from a place of empathy and compassion gives you the opportunity to be there, not induce more pain in that individual’s life.

Our sleep is one of the most important functions, if not the most important function in our lives. If we don’t get enough sleep for even two nights we can begin to feel the effects of sleep deprivation, which not only reduce our functioning with the everyday task but also plays a role in how we feel. That is why for Self-Injury Awareness Month it is important to recognize the importance of sleep and how it plays a critical role in our lives!

If you are struggling with non-suicidal self-injurious behaviors, reach out here.

When you look on the bright side, you’re acknowledging that there is a dark side at which you are choosing not to gaze. If you think that the darkest hour is before the dawn, you accept that you are moving from darkness to light.” Srikumar Rao

For more information about self-injury check out the links below!


John, A., Eyles, E., Webb, R. T., Okolie, C., Schmidt, L., Arensman, E., Hawton, K., O'Connor, R. C., Kapur, N., Moran, P., O'Neill, S., McGuiness, L. A., Olorisade, B. K., Dekel, D., Macleod-Hall, C., Cheng, H. Y., Higgins, J., & Gunnell, D. (2020). The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on self-harm and suicidal behavior: update of living systematic review. F1000Research, 9, 1097.


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