Self-harm is when you hurt yourself on purpose. You may self-harm if you’re dealing with intense or overwhelming feelings as a way to try and cope.
*Last updated: 30 July 2021
What is self-harm?
There are lots of different ways people can hurt themselves. This can include cutting, burning or scratching your skin or taking an overdose. Self-harm isn’t always obvious, and can include things you might not think of as self-harm such as over-exercising, misusing drugs or alcohol, not eating, getting into fights or having unsafe sex.
Anyone can self-harm, but it’s more common in:
- women and girls
- young people
- people with a mental health problem such as depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder or an eating disorder
- LGBTQI+ people, possibly because of the stress of stigma and discrimination
- prisoners, asylum seekers and veterans of the armed forces
- people who experienced abuse as a child
- people who have been bereaved by suicide.
Why do people self-harm?
There are many reasons why you may self-harm. It may be how you try to deal with a stressful or upsetting situation that’s happening now or that you experienced in the past. Or you might not be sure why you hurt yourself. Whatever your reasons, there is help available.
You may hurt yourself if you’re overwhelmed by difficult feelings such as sadness, guilt or hopelessness. Self-harm may be a way to express these feelings, especially if you find it hard to put them into words. The physical pain can also be a distraction from the emotional pain you’re in.
You may self-harm to try to feel in control of your body, especially if you dissociate (feel detached from yourself and your environment).
Some people hurt themselves because they feel they need to punish themselves for not being ‘good enough’.
There’s a link between suicidal thoughts and self-harm, but most people who hurt themselves don’t want to die. Some people describe self-harm as a way of staying alive and managing severe emotional distress.
Self-harm can bring a sense of temporary relief. But the underlying issues won’t have gone away, and when your feelings build up you may feel like you have to hurt yourself again. It can be hard to break out of this cycle but it’s possible to find other ways to cope.
It can be difficult to open up about self-harm. It’s understandable that you might worry about being judged or not understood. Remember that your doctor or any other health professional should treat you in a sensitive and non-judgemental way. They should talk to you about all your options so you can find the help that’s right for you.
If you’ve hurt yourself badly or worried you might act on suicidal thoughts, go to A&E or call 999. Our page on crisis care has more information.
If you want to reduce or stop your self-harm, start by talking to your doctor. They may suggest:
- talking therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Your counsellor may help you find different ways to cope with overwhelming or painful thoughts and feelings.
- medication for depression, anxiety or any other mental health condition you’ve been diagnosed with
- advice and treatment for minor injuries
- an assessment with your local community mental health team (CMHT) to help you find the right support.
If your doctor is worried you need treatment for your injuries or that your self-harm risks your life, they may suggest a hospital stay.
Ways you can look after yourself
Letting go of self-harm can feel like a big decision. Perhaps it’s how you’ve coped with difficult feelings for a long time, and you’re worried how you’ll manage without it. Understanding why you hurt yourself and how self-harm makes you feel can help you make changes and find different ways to cope.
If you want to stop or reduce your self-harm, there are ways you can help yourself.
- Work out what leads to you hurting yourself. This could be a feeling, memory, person or place, for example. Recognising what gives you the urge to self-harm can help you take steps to reduce or stop it.
- Try waiting before you self-harm. The urge to hurt yourself may pass over time.
- Distract yourself from the urge to self-harm. Different distractions work for different people, but you could try exercising, going for a walk, listening to music, writing down how you feel or having a bath, for example.
- Download the NHS distrACT app. This has information and advice about self-harm.
- Talk to someone you trust about how you feel. This could be a friend, relative or counsellor. Or call a helpline such as Samaritans or Self-injury Support (women and girls only).
- We have a guide about self-harm that you can download or order.
If you’re not ready to stop self-harming, there are ways to reduce the risks and lower the physical damage. Rethink has suggestions on ways to self-harm more safely.
How to help someone who self harms
It can be shocking and upsetting to find out someone you’re close to self harms. It can be difficult to know what to do or say. Try not to panic or get upset. The calmer you can be, the more likely it is your friend will be able to open up to you in future.
If your friend wants to talk to you about their self-harm, listen to them without judgement. Offer to help them find support, but remember that they’re in control of their decisions. Don’t try to force them to stop self-harming if they’re not ready to.
Remember to take care of yourself too. Contact some of the organisations listed below if you need support.
Mind has more tips on supporting someone who self-harms.
Further information and resources
Alumina is a free online self-harm support group for young people aged 14-19.
Harmless supports people who self-harm and their families and friends.
LifeSIGNS provides information and support to people who are ready to find new ways to cope other than self-harm.
Zest provides counselling, support and information to people in Northern Ireland who self-harm.
Self Injury Support offers information and support to women and girls affected by self-harm.
Young Minds has information and signposting for young people who self-harm.