Self-mutilation (SM), the deliberate, nonsuicidal destruction of one's own body tissue, occurs in such culturally sanctioned practices as tattooing; body piercing; and healing, spiritual, and order-preserving rituals. As a symptom, it has typically been regarded as a manifestation of borderline behavior and misidentified as a suicide attempt. It has begun to attract mainstream media attention, and many more who suffer from it are expected to seek treatment. This review suggests that SM can best be understood as a morbid self-help effort providing rapid but temporary relief from feelings of depersonalization, guilt, rejection, and boredom as well as hallucinations, sexual preoccupations, and chaotic thoughts. Major SM includes infrequent acts such as eye enucleation and castration, commonly associated with psychosis and intoxication. Stereotypic SM includes such acts as head banging and self-biting most often accompanying Tourette's syndrome and severe mental retardation. Superficial/moderate SM includes compulsive acts such as trichotillomania and skin picking and such episodic acts as skin-cutting and burning, which evolve into an axis I syndrome of repetitive impulse dyscontrol with protean symptoms.
1 Department of Psychiatry and Neurology, University of Missouri-Columbia, 3 Hospital Drive, Columbia, Missouri 65201. Send reprint requests to Dr. Favazza.