Warning: it can be upsetting and potentially triggering to read information about how to self-harm. If you are feeling vulnerable at the moment, you might not want to read the information below.

What is self-harm?

Self-harm is when somebody intentionally damages or injures their body as a way of dealing with very difficult feelings, painful memories or overwhelming situations and experiences. It’s usually a way of coping with or expressing overwhelming emotional distress. It is a very common behaviour in young people and affects around one in 12 people with 10% of 15-16 year olds self-harming.

People who self-harm have described it as a way to:

  • express something that is hard to put into words
  • turn invisible thoughts or feelings into something visible
  • change emotional pain into physical pain
  • reduce overwhelming emotional feelings or thoughts
  • have a sense of being in control
  • escape traumatic memories
  • have something in life that they can rely on
  • punish themselves for their feelings and experiences
  • stop feeling numb, disconnected or dissociated
  • create a reason to physically care for themselves
  • express suicidal feelings and thoughts without taking their own life

Often self-harming brings only temporary relief, but the cause of the distress is unlikely to have gone away. Self-harm can also bring up very difficult emotions and can make people feel worse.

Even though there are always reasons underneath someone hurting themselves, it is important to know that self-harm does carry risks. Once people start to depend on self-harm, it can take a long time to stop.

How do people self-harm?

There are lots of different forms of self-harming. Some people use the same one all the time, other people hurt themselves in different ways at different times.

Ways of self-harming can include:

  • cutting yourself
  • poisoning yourself
  • over-eating or under-eating
  • biting yourself
  • picking or scratching at your skin
  • burning your skin
  • inserting objects into your body
  • hitting yourself or walls
  • overdosing
  • exercising excessively
  • pulling your hair
  • getting into fights where you know you will get hurt.

If you self-harm, it is important that you know how to look after your injuries and that you have access to the first aid equipment you need.

Why do people self-harm?

There are no fixed rules about why people self-harm. It really can be very different for everyone.

For some people, self-harm is linked to specific experiences and is a way of dealing with something that’s either happening at the moment or which happened in the past. For others, the reasons are less clear and can be harder to make sense of.

Any difficult experience can cause someone to self-harm. Common reasons include:

  • pressures at school or work
  • bullying
  • money worries
  • sexual, physical or emotional abuse
  • bereavement
  • confusion about your sexuality
  • breakdown of a relationship
  • loss of a job
  • an illness or health problem
  • low self-esteem
  • depression or anxiety
  • an increase in stress
  • difficult feelings, such as depression, anxiety, anger or numbness

Self-harm can be a response to any situation or pressure with the potential to impact on someone.

Some people can manage these troubles by talking to friends and family, while others may find these difficulties overwhelming. When we don’t express our emotions and talk about the things that make us distressed, angry or upset, the pressure can build up and become unbearable. Some people turn this in on themselves and use their bodies as a way to express the thoughts and feelings they can’t say aloud. People often harm themselves when this all gets too much.

Some people find that certain actions, such as drinking alcohol or taking drugs, increase the likelihood of self-harm, or that self-harm is more likely to happen at certain times (at night, for example).

Sometimes people talk about self-harm as attention-seeking. If people make comments like this, it can leave you feeling judged and alienated. In reality, a lot of people keep their self-harm private, and it can be painful to have your behaviour misunderstood in this way.

However, if you do self-harm as a way of bringing attention to yourself, remember that there is nothing wrong with wanting to be noticed and to have your distress acknowledged and taken seriously. You also deserve a respectful response from those around you, including medical professionals.

Who self-harms?

Self-harm is something that can affect anyone, there is no one typical person who hurts themselves.

The age when people first self-harm ranges from four years old to people in their 60s. Most young people who self-harm say that they started to hurt themselves around the age of 12.

Emergency services receive more self-harm related calls from women than men – however, research suggests that men are equally likely to hurt themselves but face greater cultural barriers to reaching out and asking for help.

While it is true that anyone can be affected by self-harm, some people are more likely to self-harm than others because of things that have happened in their lives – where they live, things that are happening with friends, family or at school/work, or a combination of these. These specific pressures, along with discrimination and stigma, can lead to increased tension which may in turn make self-harm more likely.

It is important to remember that although these are risk factors that can make someone more likely to self-harm, having any of these does not mean someone will self-harm. Similarly, someone who self-harms might not experience any of these. Anyone can be affected

What support and treatment is available?

There are lots of support services available. People often need to try a few different things to find what works for them, and combine self-help techniques with professional support. For information on Distraction Techniques and tips on how to look after yourself see the Mental Health Foundation

  • GP
  • Talking treatments
  • Support groups
  • Online support
  • Treatment for scars
  • Charities (some of which are listed below).

National Self Harm Network (NSHN)
Self-injury support
Mental Health

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