Introduction 

Self-harm is when somebody intentionally damages or injures their body. It is a way of coping with or expressing overwhelming emotional distress.

Sometimes when people self-harm they intend to die but often the intention is more to punish themselves, express their distress or relieve unbearable tension. Self-harm can also be a cry for help.

If you are self-harming, you should see your GP for help. You can also call the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90 for support or visit the website of Mind (a mental health charity) for further advice.

Your GP will usually offer to refer you to healthcare professionals at a local community mental health service for further assessment. This assessment will result in your care team working out a treatment plan with you.

Treatment for people who self-harm will usually involve seeing a therapist to discuss your feelings and thoughts and how these affect your behaviour and wellbeing. If you are badly depressed it could also involve taking antidepressant medication.

Read more about getting help if you self-harm.

Why people self-harm

Self-harm is more common than many people realise, especially among younger people. A survey of people aged 15-16 years carried out in the UK in 2002 estimated that more than 10% of girls and more than 3% of boys had self-harmed in the previous year.

In most cases, people who self-harm do it to help them cope with unbearable and overwhelming emotional issues, caused by problems such as:

  • social factors – such as being bullied, having difficulties at work or school, or having difficult relationships with friends or family
  • trauma – such as physical or sexual abuse, or the death of a close family member or friend
  • mental health conditions – such as depression or borderline personality disorder  

These issues can lead to a build-up of intense feelings of anger, hopelessness and self-hatred.

Although some people who self-harm are at a high risk of ending their lives, many people who self-harm do not want to end their lives. In fact, the self-harm may help them cope with emotional distress so they don't feel the need to kill themselves.

Read more about the causes of self-harm.

Types and signs of self-harm

There are many different ways people can intentionally harm themselves, such as:

People often try to keep self-harm a secret because of shame or fear of discovery. For example, they may cover up their skin and avoid discussing the problem.

Therefore, it is often up to close family and friends to notice when somebody is self-harming, and to approach the subject with care and understanding. The signs may include unexplained injuries and signs of depression or low self-esteem.

Someone who is self-harming can seriously hurt themself, so it is important that they speak to a GP about the underlying issue and request treatment or therapy that is likely to help them.

Read more about the signs of self-harm.

Self-harm

An expert explains why young people may self-harm, and describes some of the different forms it can take. Caroline, director of Harmless, used to self-harm as a teenager. She gives advice on how to get the right support.

Media last reviewed: 04/03/2014

Next review due: 04/03/2016

Useful organisations

There are a number of organisations you can contact that offer support and advice for people who self-harm, as well as their friends and families. These include:

Find more mental health helplines.

Page last reviewed: 29/07/2013

Next review due: 29/07/2015