Is Self-Destructive Behavior a Mental Illness?


While self-destructive behavior is not considered a mental illness itself, it is often associated with underlying mental health conditions such as anxiety-related disorders. Individuals with these conditions may engage in self-destructive behaviors as a way to cope with intense emotions, alleviate distress, or regain a sense of control.

Self-destructive behaviors are often seen as harmful actions individuals engage in that can potentially have severe consequences for their well-being. At the same time, mental illness is a recognized medical condition that affects a person’s thinking, behavior, and emotions. In this article, we will explore the relationship between self-destructive behaviors and mental illness, examining whether self-destructive behaviors can be considered mental illnesses themselves or if they are symptoms of an underlying condition.

Defining Self-Destructive Behaviors

Self destructive behavior and mental health
Joice Kelly/Unsplash

Self-destructive behaviors encompass a range of actions that individuals engage in, intentionally or unintentionally, that harm themselves physically, emotionally, or psychologically. These behaviors can include self-harm, substance abuse, risky sexual behaviors, eating disorders, and more. They often serve as coping mechanisms or attempts to alleviate emotional pain, express distress, or gain control over overwhelming situations.

Understanding Mental Illness

Mental illness refers to a wide range of conditions that affect a person’s thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia fall under the umbrella of mental illness. These conditions can significantly impact an individual’s daily functioning, relationships, and overall quality of life.

Exploring the Relationship between Self-Destructive Behaviors and Mental Illness

Common Self-Destructive Behaviors

Self-destructive behaviors can manifest in various ways. Some individuals may resort to self-harm, such as cutting or burning themselves, as a means of coping with emotional pain. Others may engage in substance abuse to numb their feelings or escape from reality temporarily. Eating disorders, including anorexia and bulimia, can also be categorized as self-destructive behaviors, as they involve harmful behaviors related to food and body image.

Prevalence of Self-Destructive Behaviors in Individuals with Mental Illness

Research suggests that self-destructive behaviors are more prevalent among individuals with mental illness compared to the general population. The distress and emotional turmoil experienced by those with mental illness can contribute to the adoption of self-destructive coping mechanisms. Moreover, certain mental illnesses, such as borderline personality disorder, are associated with a higher likelihood of engaging in self-harm and other self-destructive behaviors.

Factors Contributing to Self-Destructive Behaviors in Mental Illness

Several factors contribute to the development and perpetuation of self-destructive behaviors in individuals with mental illness. Feelings of hopelessness, low self-esteem, difficulties in emotion regulation, and a lack of healthy coping skills can all play a role. Additionally, the presence of comorbid conditions, such as substance use disorders, further increases the risk of engaging in self-destructive behaviors.

Is Self-Destructive Behavior a Symptom or a Separate Condition?

Self-Destructive Behavior as a Symptom of Mental Illness

In many cases, self-destructive behaviors can be viewed as symptoms of an underlying mental illness. For instance, self-harm may be a way for individuals to externalize their internal pain or release built-up tension caused by their mental health condition. These behaviors often serve as red flags that indicate the need for professional help and intervention to address the root cause of the distress.

Self-Destructive Behavior as a Separate Condition

However, it is important to recognize that self-destructive behaviors can also occur independently of a mental illness diagnosis. Some individuals may engage in these behaviors due to life stressors, interpersonal conflicts, or other external factors. In these cases, the behaviors may be a response to immediate circumstances rather than indicative of an ongoing mental health condition.

The Complexity of Self-Destructive Behaviors and Mental Illness

Understanding the relationship between self-destructive behaviors and mental illness requires acknowledging the complexity of these phenomena. While self-destructive behaviors can be symptomatic of mental illness, they can also emerge as maladaptive coping mechanisms in response to distressing situations. Untangling the contributing factors and addressing the underlying issues requires a comprehensive and individualized approach.

Seeking Help and Treatment

seeking help and treatment for self-destructive behavior
Andrej Lišakov/Unsplash

1. Professional Help for Self-Destructive Behaviors

If you or someone you know is engaging in self-destructive behaviors, seeking professional help is crucial. Mental health professionals, such as therapists, counselors, or psychiatrists, can provide assessment, diagnosis, and evidence-based interventions tailored to the individual’s needs. They can help individuals develop healthier coping strategies and address the underlying causes of self-destructive behaviors.

2. Treating Mental Illness and Self-Destructive Behaviors

Treatment for self-destructive behaviors often involves addressing the underlying mental illness. Therapeutic approaches such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and medication management can be effective in managing symptoms and reducing self-destructive behaviors. A multidisciplinary approach involving therapists, psychiatrists, and other healthcare professionals can provide comprehensive care.

Coping Strategies and Self-Care

In addition to professional help, individuals can benefit from implementing coping strategies and self-care practices to manage self-destructive behaviors. These may include stress management techniques, engaging in hobbies or activities that bring joy, building a support network, practicing self-compassion, and developing healthy coping mechanisms. It is important to explore what works best for each individual and to seek ongoing support when needed.

Supporting Individuals with Self-Destructive Behaviors

Friends and family members can play a crucial role in supporting individuals struggling with self-destructive behaviors. Educating oneself about mental health, practicing active listening, offering empathy and understanding, and avoiding judgment can create a safe and supportive environment. Encouraging professional help and assisting with treatment adherence can also make a significant difference in an individual’s recovery journey.

The Importance of Destigmatizing Mental Illness and Self-Destructive Behaviors

Reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness and self-destructive behaviors is essential for promoting understanding, compassion, and effective support systems. By challenging stereotypes, promoting open conversations, and advocating for accessible mental health resources, we can create a society that fosters acceptance and empowers individuals to seek help without fear of judgment or discrimination.


In conclusion, self-destructive behaviors can be closely intertwined with mental illness, often serving as symptoms or coping mechanisms. However, they can also occur independently as responses to external factors. Understanding the complexity of this relationship is crucial for providing appropriate support and treatment. By seeking professional help, implementing coping strategies, and fostering a supportive environment, individuals can work towards managing self-destructive behaviors and improving their overall mental well-being.


Can self-destructive behaviors be overcome without professional help?
While professional help is strongly recommended for addressing self-destructive behaviors, individual resilience, and support systems can contribute to the
recovery. However, seeking professional guidance ensures access to evidence-based interventions and increases the likelihood of sustained progress.

Is self-destructive behavior always a sign of an underlying mental illness?
Not necessarily. Self-destructive behaviors can stem from various causes, including immediate life stressors or other factors. However, if self-destructive behaviors persist or intensify, it is important to consider the possibility of an underlying mental illness and seek professional evaluation.

Are self-destructive behaviors more common in certain mental illnesses?
Yes, certain mental illnesses, such as borderline personality disorder, are associated with a higher prevalence of self-destructive behaviors. However, self-destructive behaviors can occur in individuals with various mental health conditions or even in the absence of a diagnosed mental illness.

How can friends and family members support someone with self-destructive behaviors?
Friends and family members can provide crucial support by educating themselves about mental health, listening without judgment, encouraging professional help, and being present as a compassionate and understanding presence. Supporting individuals in accessing appropriate resources and maintaining open communication can make a significant difference.

What steps can society take to reduce the stigma around mental illness and self-destructive behaviors?
Reducing stigma requires a collective effort. Society can promote mental health awareness through education, media representation, and challenging stereotypes. Providing accessible and affordable mental health services, fostering support networks, and advocating for policy changes are also essential steps toward destigmatizing mental illness and self-destructive behaviors.


Darcan, E., & Irmak, F. (2014). Self-Destructive Behavior. In Encyclopedia of Diversity and Social Justice (pp. 648-650). Rowman & Littlefield.

Harat, M., Kiec, M., Rudaś, M., Birski, M., & Furtak, J. (2021). Treating Aggression and Self-destructive Behaviors by Stimulating the Nucleus Accumbens: A Case Series. Frontiers in Neurology, 12, 706166. doi: 10.3389/fneur.2021.706166. PMID: 34707553. PMCID: PMC8542713.

Disclaimer: Please note that this article is for informational purposes only and should not replace professional medical or therapeutic advice.


Ignite your personal growth journey with our handpicked collection of inspiring content. Sign up now for a life-changing dose of motivation and wellness.

You may also like...