Self harm and the DSM

What is the DSM?

DSM means Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders. It is written and published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA).

This is the manual used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental health disorders.

The DSM is periodically reviewed and updated. The latest version is the DSM-5 that was published in 2013.

Is self harm an official DSM-5 diagnosis?

Self harm does appear in the DSM-5, but it is currently not an official diagnosis.

Self harm appears in a section called “conditions to further study” under the name of nonsuicidal self-injury.

However, what can be found in this section of the DSM is not intended to be used for diagnoses. Its goal is to “provide a common language for researchers and clinicians who are interested in studying these disorders” .

When did self harm appear for the first time?

Self harm was first mentioned in the DSM-4 as the 5th diagnostic criteria of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

However, this doesn’t mean you have to self harm to be diagnosed with BPD: you need to experience at least five of the nine diagnostic criteria. This means you can be diagnosed with BPD and have never had any issue with self harm.

DSM-5 proposed criteria

Nonsuicidal self-injury

  1. In the last year, the individual has, on five or more days, engaged in intentional self-inflicted damage to the surface of his or her body of a sort likely to induce bleeding, bruising, or pain (e.g., cutting, burning, stabbing, hitting, excessive rubbing), with the expectation that the injury will lead to only minor or moderate physical harm (i.e., there is no suicidal intent).

    Note: The absence of suicidal intent has either been stated by the individual or can be inferred by the individual’s repeated engagement in a behavior that the individual knows, or has learned, is not likely to result in death.

  2. The individual engages in the self-injurious behavior with one or more of the following expectations:

    1. To obtain relief from a negative feeling or cognitive state.
    2. To resolve an interpersonal state.
    3. To induce a positive feeling state.

    Note: The desired relief or response is experienced during or shortly after the self-injury, and the individual may display patterns of behavior suggesting a dependence on repeatedly engaging in it.

  3. The intentional self-injury is associated with at least one of the following:

    1. Interpersonal difficulties or negative feelings or thoughts, such as depression, anxiety, tension, anger, generalized distress, or self-criticism, occurring in the period immediately prior to the self-injurious act.
    2. Prior to engaging in the act, a period of preoccupation with the intended behavior that is difficult to control.
    3. Thinking about self-injury that occurs frequently, even when not acted upon.
  4. The behavior is not socially sanctioned (e.g., body piercing, tattooing, part of a religious or cultural ritual) and is not restricted to picking a scab or nail biting.

  5. The behavior or its consequences cause clinically significant distress or interference in interpersonal, academic, or other important areas of functioning.

    The behavior does not occur exclusively during psychotic episodes, delirium, substance intoxication, or substance withdrawal. In individuals with a neurodevelopmental disorder, the behavior is not part of a pattern of repetitive stereotypies. The behavior is not better explained by another mental disorder or medical condition (e.g., psychotic disorder, autism spectrum disorder, intellectual disability, Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, stereotypic movement disorder with self injury, trichotillomania [hair pulling disorder], excoriation [skin-picking] disorder).”


  • American Psychiatric Association. (2015, November). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders. Retrieved from
  • DSM 5 American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).
  • American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.).