This content mentions self-harm, suicide or suicidal thoughts, depression, anxiety, eating disorders and substance abuse or addiction (which may include mentions of alcohol or drug use). Please read with care. There are details of where to find help at the bottom of this page.
- What is self-harm?
- Why do people self-harm?
- Getting support
- Ways you can look after yourself
- How to help someone who self harms
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.
What is self-harm?
There are lots of different ways people can hurt themselves. 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 problems such as depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder or an eating disorder
- LGBTQIA+ 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. Physical pain can also be a distraction from your emotional pain.
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 can be 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 go 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 finding other ways to cope is possible.
It can be difficult to open up about self-harm. Understandably, 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), mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) or dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT). 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 worried about 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. For example, this could be a feeling, memory, person or place. 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
- 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. Don't ignore their injuries or focus on them too much: for example, don't ask to see their injuries if they don't want to show you.
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 (previously Self Harm UK) is a free online self-harm support group for young people aged 11 to 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.
- Self Injury Support offers support to women and girls affected by self-harm, information and training for all.
- Young Minds has information and signposting for young people who self-harm.
- Zest provides counselling, support and information to people in Northern Ireland who self-harm.
* Last updated: 15 February 2022
If you feel like ending your life or are unable to keep yourself safe, please call 999 or go to A&E and ask for the contact of the nearest crisis resolution team. These are teams of mental health care professionals who work with people in severe distress. If you feel affected by the content you have read, please see our get help page for support.