Understanding self harm

What is self harm?

Self harm is the term used to describe when someone deliberately hurts themselves as a way of dealing with their emotions. They may do this in a number of ways, including:
  • cutting or scratching themselves
  • burning themselves with a flame or something hot
  • causing bruising to the body by hitting themselves
  • throwing their body against something that will hurt
  • taking overdoses of tablets or medication
  • inserting objects into the body
  • hair pulling (also known as trichotilliomania)
This is by no means an exhaustive list.


Why do people self harm?

Self harm is a coping strategy that helps people to manage their emotional hurt or stress. It is important to remember that it is not attempted suicide, but it is something that people do in order to survive that has a complex relationship with suicide. Often people self harm to try and feel as if they have more control over their emotions, or to get immediate relief from high levels of distress. Sometimes people harm themselves because of self hate, or because they want to punish themselves. The reasons that someone may self harm may change over time or from incident to incident so always check this out.

But I just don’t get it…

Often if we are faced with someone that self harms it can be difficult to understand how hurting yourself can help somehow. Think of it like this – our emotions are physical states; we feel them in our body so we all do physical things to change or influence our emotions if they feel uncomfortable. Some of us might have a glass of wine, eat too much junk food or go for a run. In many ways they serve a similar function and can help us to manage our emotions but the difference is that these are generally socially acceptable.

Who self harms?

There is no straight forward answer to this.
The truth is – anyone is at risk from self harming at some point in his or her life depending on the experiences they have and the way they feel about these experiences.
People self harm for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways, and what can cause one person to harm themselves, may not create the same level of distress in another person.
Popular culture would have you believe that self harm is just a young persons problem but we know that it is more complex than that and can impact anyone at any stage of their life.
It can be very hard for anyone of any age to come forwards and so

What causes people to self harm?

There are many things that can cause distress is someone that can in turn lead them to harm themselves. Such issues that may trigger the onset or a period of self harm might be bullying, trauma, abuse, school or work pressures, bereavement and difficult relationships but no experience can be disregarded. There doesn’t always need to be a triggering event in someone’s life that makes them turn to self harm, sometimes individuals just experience a period of decreased self esteem or increased distress that leads them to harm themselves.

Self harm is NOT...

  • attention seeking or manipulative;
  • a mental illness; it is a symptom of internal stress or distress
  • just a young person’s problem
  • a suicide attempt but it is a risk factor for suicide
  • the sole problem but is a symptom of emotional distress
  • a problem that cannot be solved, people can learn to manage their emotions in a different way
  • a behaviour that is risky to others
The severity of self harm is not directly related to the level of distress that the individual is feeling. The fact that someone has harmed themselves is what is significant, not what they did or how severe their harm is.


Change Happens

Self harm is very often an individual’s way of coping and staying alive. People who self harm are more likely to die by suicide than the general public but their harm may be the one thing that keeps them going; to take this away from them, encourage them to hide it, or stop for the wrong reasons may lead to them feeling so overwhelmed with their feelings and experiences and may lead to suicidal feelings or actions.
It is really important to remember that self harm is VERY different to suicidal intent, but at times the two may be close. Someone who is suicidal feels as if they can’t take anymore and their only option is to end their life, whereas someone who self harms feels that they can’t take anymore (of whatever they’re feeling) and their only option is to harm themselves in order to stay alive.
If you tell them to STOP when they’re not ready, imagine what they could feel their only option is.
The most helpful treatment for people who self harm is some talking therapies that usually take place over a number of months or years.
The language that we use
It is advisable not to describe the person who self harms as a ‘self harmer’, as this defines an identity. Self harm is a behaviour and this can change.