The Truth About Self-Harm

Self-harm is very common and affects more people than you might think. 10% of young people self-harm.

This means it’s likely that at least two young people in every secondary school classroom have self-harmed at some time. If you are self-harming, you are not alone – lots of information and support are available.

Remember, self-harm isn’t a suicide attempt or a cry for attention. However, it can be a way for some people to cope with overwhelming and distressing thoughts or feelings. Self-harm should be taken seriously, whatever the reason behind it.

It is possible to live without self-harm. It is important to know that you won’t always feel the way you do now.

With the right help and support, most people who self-harm can and do fully recover.

What is self-harm?

Self-harm describes any behaviour where someone causes harm to themselves, usually as a way to help cope with difficult or distressing thoughts and feelings.

It most frequently takes the form of cutting, burning or non-lethal overdoses. However, it can also be any behaviour that causes injury – no matter how minor, or high-risk behaviours.

Basically, any behaviour that causes harm or injury to someone as a way to deal with difficult emotions can be seen as self-harm.

The self-harm cycle

Self-harm usually starts as a way to relieve the build-up of pressure from distressing thoughts and feelings. This might give temporary relief from the emotional pain the person is feeling.

It’s important to know that this relief is only temporary because the underlying reasons still remain. Soon after, feelings of guilt and shame might follow, which can continue the cycle.

Since there may be some temporary relief at the start, self-harm can become someone’s normal way of dealing with life’s difficulties. This means that it is important to talk to someone as early as possible to get the right support and help.

Learning new coping strategies to deal with these difficulties can make it easier to break the cycle of self-harm in the long term.

Who does it?

There is no such thing as a typical young person who self-harms. Self-harm is something that can affect anyone. It’s believed that around 10% of young people self-harm, but it could be as high as 20%.

If you self-harm, there are a lot of people who also know what you’re going through. Most young people reported that they started to hurt themselves around the age of 12.

While it is true that anyone can be affected by self-harm, some people are more likely to self-harm than others because of things that have happened in their lives – where they live, things that are happening with friends, family or at school, or a combination of these.

This means that some people are more at risk of self-harm than others. Some factors that might make someone more at risk are:

  1. Experience of a mental health disorder. This might include depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, and eating disorders.
  2. Being a young person who is not under the care of their parents, or young people who have left a care home.
  3. Being part of the LGBT community.
  4. Having been bereaved by suicide.

It is important to remember that although these are risk factors that can make someone more likely to self-harm, having any of these does not mean someone will self-harm.

Similarly, someone who self-harms might not experience any of these. Anyone can be affected.

Why do people self-harm?

Everyone has different things that cause stress and worry them. Some people can manage these troubles by talking to friends and family, while others may find these difficulties overwhelming.

When we don’t express our emotions and talk about the things that make us distressed, angry or upset, the pressure can build up and become unbearable.

Some people turn this in on themselves and use their bodies as a way to express the thoughts and feelings they can’t say aloud. People often harm themselves when this all gets too much.

If you self-harm, you might find that when you feel angry, distressed, worried or depressed, you feel the urge to hurt yourself even more.

Someone’s reason for self-harm can be very different from other people who self-harm. Some of the reasons that young people report as triggers or reasons that lead them to self-harm include:

  • difficulties at home
  • arguments or problems with friends
  • school pressures
  • bullying
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • low self-esteem
  • transitions and changes, such as changing schools
  • alcohol and drug use.

When a few of these issues come together they can quickly feel overwhelming and become too much for one person to deal with. As one young person said, many people self-harm to ”get out the hurt, anger and pain” caused by pressures in their lives.

They hurt themselves because they didn’t know what else to do and didn’t feel like they had any other options. Talking to someone you trust or a healthcare professional can help you find other options for coping with the emotional pain you are feeling.

If you are experiencing difficult issues in your life, there is support available.

Breaking Down The Myths

There are lots of myths attached to self-harm. This isn’t surprising – myths and misunderstandings often arise when a problem like self-harm is poorly understood.

Negative stereotypes can be powerful. They need to be challenged because they stop people from talking about their issues and asking for help. These myths also mean that professionals, family, and friends can misunderstand people who self-harm.

Please use horizontal scroll to see the table completely in mobile.

Myth #1 ‘Self-harm is attention-seeking’Myth #2 ‘Self-harm is a goth thing’Myth #3 ‘Only girls self-harm’Myth #4 ‘People who self-harm must enjoy it’Myth #5 ‘People who self-harm are suicidal'
One of the most common stereotypes is that self-harm is about ‘attention seeking’. This is not the case.
Self-harm has been stereotyped to be seen as part of youth subcultures such as “goth” or “emo”.
It is often assumed that girls are more likely than boys to self-harm, however, it isn’t clear if this is true.
Some people believe that people who self-harm take pleasure in the pain or risk associated with the behavior. There is no evidence that people who self-harm feel pain differently than anyone else.
Self-harm is sometimes viewed as a suicide attempt by people who don’t understand it. For many people self-harms is about trying to cope with difficult feelings and circumstances.
Many people who self-harm don’t talk to anyone about what they are going through for a long time and it can be very hard for people to find enough courage to ask for help. While there is some research suggesting a link, there is no conclusive evidence of this with little or no evidence supporting the belief that self-harm is part of any particular young person subculture.Boys and girls may engage with different self-harming behaviors or have different reasons for hurting themselves, but this doesn’t make it any less serious.The harmful behavior often causes people great pain. For some, being depressed has left them numb and they want to feel anything to remind them they are alive, even if it hurts. Others have described this pain as punishment.Some people have described it is a way of staying alive and surviving these difficulties. However, some people who self-harm can feel suicidal and might attempt to take their own life, which is why it must always be taken seriously.

Getting Help

Should I tell someone?

Yes. Talking to someone is often the first step to getting out of the cycle.

It isn’t an easy thing to do and you might find it difficult to talk about your self-harm and the reasons behind it. This is normal – lots of young people who self-harm find asking for help very difficult. But it is an important step towards recovery and feeling better.

Telling someone about your self-harm shows strength and courage; it can often be a huge relief to be able to let go of such a secret or at least share it.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help whenever and however you need to. Talking about your feelings isn’t a sign of weakness. It shows that you are taking charge of your well-being and doing what you need to stay healthy.

It isn’t always easy to express how you are feeling. If you can’t think of one word to describe a feeling, use as many as you need to illustrate how you feel.

Talking can be a way of coping with a problem you’ve been carrying around in your head for a while. Feeling listened to can help you feel more supported. And it works both ways: if you open up it might encourage others to do the same.

Who can I talk to?

There are lots of people you can talk to about what you are going through. It is important to tell someone you trust and feel comfortable with, as they will be able to help and support you. Young people told us that they have been able to talk to:

  • friends;
  • family;
  • someone at school, such as a trusted teacher, school nurse or pastoral;
  • care staff;
  • a youth worker;
  • their GP or healthcare professionals such as a counsellor or nurse;
  • charities and helplines.

There are no rules about how you should tell someone. The most important thing is that you feel comfortable and trust the person you decide to tell.

Set time aside to talk to them. Remember you can set the pace and it is up to you how much you want to tell them.

If you find speaking about it too difficult, you can tell someone in writing or in an email. You can even ask a friend to speak to a trusted adult on your behalf.

Let them know you need help with how you are feeling. There is no need to give details about how you have harmed yourself and you don’t need to talk about things you feel uncomfortable talking about. Try to focus on the thoughts and feelings behind your self-harm rather than the behaviours.

If you decide to talk to a GP or other health professional, you can take a friend or family member with you to support you.

Sometimes after telling someone you may feel worse. That’s normal. But remember that once you get over this hurdle there is support and help available.

Remember that health professionals, GPs and teachers are familiar with this issue and are there to help.

Don’t let the fear of a bad reaction put you off seeking the help you need and deserve. As hard as it is to tell someone, sharing will take the pressure off you and help you get the right support and help available.

What help is available for me?

There are lots of support services and treatments available when you feel ready to seek help.

If you seek help from your GP, it is likely they will offer you counselling, where a professional will listen and help you to work on solutions and strategies to cope with the problems you are dealing with.

Talking therapies such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) focus on building coping strategies and problem-solving skills and have been found to be very effective in helping to reduce self-harm.

Other forms of counselling, like psychodynamic therapy, for instance, will help you to identify the problems that are causing you distress and leading you to self-harm.


It’s important to remember that you won’t always feel the way you do now. The problems that are causing you to self-harm can, with help and support, become more manageable over time or even go away. Things can and do get better!

Take time and be patient with yourself. Recovery doesn’t happen overnight – it can be a slow process. Start to learn how to care for yourself.

Young people who have recovered from self-harm say that changes over time and changes in circumstances in life (for example moving home, changing schools, finishing exams, going to university, changing jobs or changed financial circumstances) helped them to recover.

Once one or two of the main factors that were causing them to self-harm (such as their family situation, or bullying at school) were removed, they felt they didn’t have to use self-harm as a coping strategy.

Others explained that recovery was about finding new coping strategies and more helpful ways of dealing with emotions or distress. This is also an important factor towards recovery from self-harm.

Signs to Look Out For

It can be difficult to tell whether someone is self-harming. Here are some signs that might suggest someone could be self-harming:

  1. Withdrawal or isolation from everyday life.
  2. Signs of depression such as low mood, tearfulness or a lack of motivation or interest in anything.
  3. Changes in mood.
  4. Changes in eating/sleeping habits.
  5. Changes in activity and mood, e.g. more aggressive than usual.
  6. Talking about self-harming or suicide.
  7. Abusing drugs or alcohol.
  8. Expressing feelings of failure, uselessness or loss of hope.
  9. Risk-taking behaviour (substance misuse, unprotected sexual acts).
  10. Signs of low self-esteem such as blaming themselves for any problems or saying they are not good enough.
  11. Unexplained cuts, bruises or marks.
  12. Covering up all the time, when in hot weather.
  13. Being quieter than usual.
  14. Lacking energy.

It is important to know that these may be a sign of other things and don’t always mean someone is self-harming. Also, there may be no warning signs at all. It is therefore important that if you suspect someone you know is self-harming, that you ask them openly and honestly.

What to do if you are worried about someone

If you are worried that someone you know is self-harming, it can be difficult to know what to do. When you are aware there is an issue, it is important that you do not wait. Waiting and hoping they will come to you for help might lose valuable time in getting them the best support and treatment to help them.

Be mindful that they might not feel ready or able to talk about their self-harm. Let them lead the discussion at their own pace and don’t put pressure on them to tell you details that they aren’t ready to talk about.

It takes a lot of trust and courage to open up about self-harm. You might be the first person they have been able to talk to about this.

In any similar case, you can contact our experts and ask them for free assistance!