What is self-harm?

Self-harm is when somebody intentionally damages or injures their body. It’s usually a way of coping with overwhelming emotional distress.

Sometimes when people self-harm, they feel on some level that they intend to die. More than half of people who die by suicide have a history of self-harm.

The intention is more often to punish themselves, express their distress, or relieve unbearable tension. Sometimes it’s a mixture of all three.

Self-harm can also be a cry for help.

Why people self-harm

  • Social problems – Such as being bullied, having difficulties at work or school, having difficult relationships with friends or family, financial problems, coming to terms with their sexuality if they think they might be gay or bisexual, coping with cultural expectations such as arranged marriage.
  • Trauma – Such as physical or sexual abuse, the death of a close family member or friend, or having a miscarriage.
  • Psychological causes – Such as having repeated thoughts or voices telling them to self-harm, disassociating (losing touch with who they are and with their surroundings), or borderline personality disorder.

Ways people can intentionally harm themselves

  • Cutting, scratching or burning their skin
  • Punching, slapping or hitting themselves
  • Poisoning themselves with tablets or toxic chemicals
  • Misusing alcohol and drugs
  • Deliberately starving themselves
  • Persistently interfering with wound healing
  • Piercing the skin with sharp objects
  • Pulling out hair
  • Excessively exercising

People often try to keep self-harm a secret because of shame or fear of discovery. For example, if they’re cutting themselves, they may cover up their skin and avoid discussing the problem.

It’s often up to close family and friends to notice when somebody is self-harming, and to approach the subject with care and understanding.

Signs of self-harm

If you think a friend or relative is self-harming, look out for any of the following signs:

  • Unexplained cuts, bruises or cigarette burns, usually on their wrists, arms, thighs and chest
  • Keeping themselves fully covered at all times, even in the hot weather
  • Signs of depression, such as low mood, tearfulness or lack of motivation or interest in anything
  • Self-loathing and expressing a wish to punish themselves
  • Becoming very withdrawn and not speaking to others
  • Changes in eating habits or being secretive about eating, and any unusual weight loss or weight gain
  • Signs of low self-esteem such as blaming themselves for any problems or thinking they are not good enough for something
  • Signs out pulling their hair out
  • Signs of alcohol or drug misuse

People who self-harm can seriously hurt themselves, so it’s important that they speak to a GP about the underlying issue and request treatment or therapy.

Helping someone who self-harms

  • Assess the danger and keep yourself safe. Move to a safer place and remove any danger which has caused their injuries
  • Do not ignore their injuries , or overly focus on them – stay calm
  • Ask if you can provide first aid, if you are able to do so. Depending on the extent of the injury, you may need to call the emergency services
  • Let the person know that you care for them and that you are there to help
  • Relate to them as a whole person, not just their condition
  • Once the person is safe from further harm, provide an opportunity for them to talk about their situation. Apply non-judgemental listening and show compassion
  • Assist the person to obtain professional support if they would like you to, or contact a close friend or family member who they can trust in the situation

Useful contacts

Samaritans – Confidential support for people experiencing feelings of distress or despair
Phone – 116 123 (24-hour helpline)
Website – www.samaritans.org.uk

Harmless – Provides a range of services for people who self-harm and their friends and families 
Phone – 0115 880 0280
Website – https://harmless.org.uk/

Mind – Promotes views and needs of people with mental health problems, including self-harm 
Phone – 0300 123 3393 
Website – https://www.mind.org.uk/

NHS Choices – Provides a wealth of information on treatments for self-harm
Website – https://www.nhs.uk/

YoungMinds Parents Helpline – Advice and support for anyone worried about a child or young person under 25
Phone – 0808 802 5544 from 9:30am – 4pm, Monday – Friday
Website – https://www.youngminds.org.uk/

Share this information
Step One