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Why people self-harm

Self-harm is when somebody intentionally damages or injures their body.

Some of the reasons that people may self-harm include:

  • expressing or coping with emotional distress
  • trying to feel in control
  • a way of punishing themselves
  • relieving unbearable emotional distress
  • a cry for help
  • a response to intrusive thoughts

Self-harm may be linked to bad experiences that are happening now, or in the past. But sometimes the reason is unknown.

The reasons can also change over time and will not be the same for everybody.

Common causes of emotional distress

Self-harm is most often described as a way to express or cope with emotional distress.

There are many possible causes of emotional distress. It's often a build-up of many smaller things that leads people to think about self-harm.

Some examples include:

  • being bullied
  • pressure at school or work
  • family arguments or relationship problems
  • money worries
  • low self-esteem
  • struggling with stress, anxiety or depression
  • confusion about sexuality
  • grief after bereavement or loss
  • physical or sexual abuse
  • being in contact with the criminal justice system
  • experiencing complex mental health difficulties that sometimes cause impulsive behaviour or difficulty controlling emotions, often due to past trauma
  • living with conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism

Self-harm and suicide

There is evidence of a clear link between suicide or suicidal thoughts and people who have previously self-harmed.

However, not everyone who self-harms wants to end their life. Some people describe their self-harm as a way of staying alive by responding to or coping with severe emotional distress.

It's important to find the right support or treatment to help deal with the underlying cause in a less harmful way.


Further information and support

Video: talking about self-harm

This video explores why young people may self-harm and gives advice on how to get the right support.

Media last reviewed: 2 March 2021
Media review due: 2 March 2024

Page last reviewed: 8 August 2023
Next review due: 8 August 2023