Self-harm can take many forms and is best described as harming yourself as a means of coping with emotional distress. Many people say that when they harm themselves, they experience a release of tension and so they often feel calmer. For some, self-harm may help them feel they can achieve some degree of control back in their lives.

If someone is self-harming as a way of dealing with emotional pain, support is available to help the person identify other ways of coping.

Self-harm is very often not a suicide attempt, however, there is evidence that people who do self-harm are at a greater risk of suicide than the general population and should never be dismissed as just ‘attention seeking’ or being ‘manipulative’.

Relatives, friends or professionals trying to support the person can find it very stressful, especially when the person does not want to talk about or explain their behaviour. It is easy to feel ‘shut out’ and just left to pick up the pieces at times of crisis. If someone we care about is self-harming, and not willing to let us help, we can feel isolated and powerless.

When people self-harm there are often underlying issues with self-esteem and self worth, and they may think that others will see them in the same light and be critical. There are therapies that have been shown to be effective in breaking the negative cycle – these include C.B.T. and D.B.T.

Tips on supporting someone who self-harms:

  • First aid
    Respond to an incident of self-harm in the same way that you would for someone who has been in an accident. Provide first aid as for any other physical injury.

  • Avoid criticism
    Do not assume that he or she either enjoys or does not feel pain. A response which implies criticism or some form of punishment simply reinforces their feelings of self-blame and guilt.

  • Understand 
    Acknowledge their person’s distress.

  • Prepare 
    Have a plan for how you will support him or her when they are in distress.  Knowing what to do and who to contact in an emergency can be very reassuring for the person and those who care for them.

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Content provided by Shine and adapted for by the National Office for Suicide Prevention. Find out more about our content partnerships