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When language is maladaptive: recommendations for discussing self-injury

Penelope Hasking (School of Psychology, Curtin University, Bentley, Australia)
Stephen P. Lewis (University of Guelph, Guelph, Canada)
Mark E. Boyes (Curtin University, Bentley, Australia)

Journal of Public Mental Health

ISSN: 1746-5729

Article publication date: 18 June 2019

Issue publication date: 18 June 2019




The purpose of this paper is to call on researchers and clinicians to carefully consider the terminology used when discussing non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI), and specifically the use of the term “maladaptive” coping.


Drawing on literature regarding stigma, language and self-injury to support the argument that the term maladaptive is inappropriate to describe self-injury.


Use of the term maladaptive conflates short-term effectiveness with long-term outcomes and ignores context in which the behaviour occurs.

Social implications

Use of the term maladaptive to describe self-injury can invalidate the person with a history of NSSI, impacting stigma and potentially help-seeking. An alternate framing focussed on specific coping strategies is offered.


Language is a powerful medium of communication that has significant influence in how society shapes ideas around mental health. In proposing a change in the way the authors’ talk about self-injury there is potential to significantly improve the wellbeing of people with lived experience of self-injury.



Hasking, P., Lewis, S.P. and Boyes, M.E. (2019), "When language is maladaptive: recommendations for discussing self-injury", Journal of Public Mental Health, Vol. 18 No. 2, pp. 148-152.



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