Social media posters describe non-suicidal self-harm in similar terms to addiction

March 25, 2022

1 min read


Disclosures: Curtis and Volkow report no relevant financial disclosures.

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An analysis of more than 350,000 posts on the social media platform Reddit found many individuals used language to discuss non-suicidal self-injury similar to language used in diagnoses of substance use disorder.

“Non-suicidal self-injury is often private and hidden, and like substance use disorders, is highly stigmatized and can lead to significant harm if left undiagnosed and untreated,” Nora Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said in a press release.

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More than 350,000 posters on a forum dedicated to the discussion of self-harm between 2010 to 2019, were analyzed. Those who often posted directly referred to their self-injuring behavior as an “addiction.”

Nora Volkow

Nora Volkow

Findings of the study also suggest that clinicians may better support people living with non-suicidal self-injury by adopting similar strategies in the diagnosis and treatment of substance use disorders.

Approximately 17% of adolescents, 13% of young adults and 6% of adults report a lifetime history of non-suicidal self-injury, the release stated.

To gain more information on the phenomenon, experts explored language posters utilized on Reddit, combing through 69,380 original posts and 290,524 comments from 38,484 users on the site’s r/selfharm subforum.

From this dataset, researchers pared down analysis to posts from 500 random Reddit users who left at least 10 posts and comments with a total of at least 2,000 words. Researchers then crafted a set of 11 diagnostic criteria from the DSM-5 used to diagnose substance use disorders and applied them to posts on non-suicidal self-injury, to examine them for language indicating symptoms and features of addiction.

From those results, 77% of posters met at least two of the adapted DSM-5 substance use disorder criteria, the most frequent being urges or cravings (68%), along with escalating severity or tolerance of self-harming activities (47%) .

“Our findings here suggest that language addiction may feel familiar and comfortable for patients who are self-harm. We must listen and learn from these lived experiences,” Brenda Curtis, PhD, MsPH, senior author on the study and chief of NIDA’s Technology and Translational Research Unit in the NIDA Translational Addiction Medicine Branch, said in the release.


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