A phenomenological analysis of the expressive and communicative functions of deliberate self-harm

  • Peter Bandalli

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


The notion that acts of deliberate self-harm serve an expressive or communicative function is the central premise upon which many of the main functional models of selfharm are based. However despite the importance of this notion, very little empirical evidence exists to support it. Within this project the notion that acts of DSH serve an expressive or communicative function was explored in detail. Four studies investigating the expressive and communicative qualities of acts of DSH, the content which such behaviours serve to express, and the dynamics by which several different modalities of DSH do this were performed utilising Internet methods of data collection. The use of online methods of data collection findings of this project only apply to the sub-group of individuals who engage in DSH and also participate in online discussion forums. Photographs of words and phrases engraved into the skin along with detailed first person narratives of past episodes of deliberate self-harm were used as data sources in this project. Due to their high frequency of occurrence, acts of skin-cutting, self-burning, self-hitting, and self-poisoning were the main modalities of deliberate self-harm investigated in the four studies. Acts of skin-cutting, self-burning, self-hitting, and self-poisoning were all reported to serve expressive functions which allowed emotions and issues to be released or discharged from the body. Conversely, acts of skin-cutting and self-poisoning were also reportedly used to communicate emotional distress and a need for support from others. The content expressed or communicated by such behaviours, and indeed the dynamics by which they did so depended largely upon the modality by which injuries were inflicted. However in general the content expressed and communicated by the acts of deliberate self-harm reported in this project typically related to the events which preceded such behaviours, how they were interpreted, the types of psychological experiences they represented, and the emotions which they evoked. Such events were overwhelmingly interpersonal in nature, and typically involved the dissolution or disruption of relationships with primary support group members. The dynamics by which acts of deliberate self-harm reportedly served these functions differed widely, however the concept of symbolism was central to all modalities. The data collected within this project relating to the expressive and communicative functions of acts of skin-cutting, self-burning, self-hitting, and selfpoisoning was finally collated with the existing literature on the subject.
Date of Award1 Oct 2011
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorKaren Rodham (Supervisor) & Jeffrey Gavin (Supervisor)


  • expression
  • deliberate self-harm
  • communication
  • symbolism
  • phenomenology
  • function

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