What is self-harm?
Self-harm is when you hurt yourself on purpose to relieve feelings of distress. People sometimes self-harm when life feels hard to cope with.
If you self-harm, you might be dealing with lots of intense thoughts and feelings and hurting yourself feels like the only way to let those feelings out.
Or you might feel numb and want to hurt yourself so that you can feel something.
Self-harm is a way to show the feelings you have inside on the outside. It might cause you to experience:
- pain or discomfort
- temporary physical marks
- feelings of sickness or dizziness
- feelings of weakness, shame or disgust
- feeling scared, out of control or confused by why you are doing this
- feelings of isolation and loneliness
It is important to note that self-harm is not always obvious. You might find yourself doing things which are harmful, but not think of them as ‘self-harm’. This could include things like:
- using drugs or alcohol to cope with our problems
- not eating, over-eating, or forcing ourselves to throw up
- spending all our time on addictive behaviours like gaming, social media or gambling
- over-exercising and/or exercising when we are injured
- getting into fights
- getting into situations on purpose where we risk getting hurt, including
- risky sexual behaviour
Often self-harm only brings temporary relief. This means that later, when things start to build up again, we might feel like we have to harm again. It can be really hard to break out of this cycle. And it can be upsetting to think that this is our only way to cope. But there are things you can do to stop self-harming and get better.
Why do I self-harm?
There are many reasons why you might self-harm. It is usually a symptom that something stressful or upsetting is going on in your life that is difficult to deal with. This could be something like:
- suffering abuse
- experiencing a traumatic incident
- family problems like a divorce
- a sudden change in your life, like a death, divorce or moving school
- exam stress or extreme pressure or criticism from family, friends or teachers
- low self-esteem or issues with body image
- feelings of guilt, failure, or being unloved
Things can happen in life that can leave us feeling overwhelmed, angry and hurt. Instead of finding ways to express those feelings to the world, we start to take this pain and anger out on ourselves.
We might self-harm because we have learnt that in order to be accepted or loved we have to be ‘perfect’. When we don’t live up to this ‘perfect’ image we can feel like a ‘failure’. The constant guilt, or worry about disappointing people, can make us feel like we need to punish ourselves for not being ‘good enough’. With the right support, you can stop feeling this way, and learn to love yourself for who you are.
We might self-harm because we are angry and upset about being treated badly. If we are treated in a way that makes us feel invisible, unimportant or unloved, it can make us feel like there is something wrong with us. But the truth is, you matter. You are worthy of respect and love exactly the way you are, and you deserve help.
Read more in Lucas' blog, 'Ten things I wish people knew about self-harm'
Charlotte’s blog: My story of self-harm recovery
I was only 14 when I started to self-harm. I was never intending to hurt myself. I was doing it for the sense of relief it provided. I felt like the only way I could function and leave my room was if I had that release.
One day my father walked in on me when I was self-harming. I thought, “This is it, I am in so much trouble and I’ll be grounded.” On another level I felt so worried about upsetting my father, he meant so much to me. To my surprise he just sat next to me, calmed me down and told me to be safe. He then got me scar oil in case I wanted it – which was so thoughtful.
I am now 22 and haven’t self-harmed for over a year. So, how did I recover from self-harm?
- I talk to people - because I know that there is no shame in my feelings or my past.
- I never overwhelm myself and take one day at a time - knowing your limits is important.
Looking back, for a long time I had suffered alone and didn't realise I could ask for help. So my message to you would be: don’t let fear prevent you from getting the support you deserve.
To continue reading Charlotte’s blog visit ‘My story of self-harm recovery.’
For more advice on how you can get help for self-harm, have a look at our blogs:
How can I stop self-harming?
Talk to someone
Talking about how you’re feeling with someone you trust can feel like a relief. This person could be a friend, family member, teacher, school counsellor/nurse, or youth worker. Think about who you feel safe with and how you would feel most comfortable communicating, whether it’s face to face, over the phone, by text or email.
It’s understandable if you’re worried no one will understand you, or that people might judge you. But don’t worry, there are lots of trained people who do understand and really care. That’s because they speak to thousands of young people who are going through this too. Nothing you can say will shock them, and they are here to listen and support you. Please take a look at the list of organisations at the end of this page, and don’t struggle on your own.
Get professional support
Professional support can make a massive difference. It’s ok to ask for help when you need it. We all need help sometimes, it doesn’t make you weak - in fact reaching out takes bravery and strength.
Your GP can refer you to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) so you can have an assessment and get the treatment that is right for you. You might be offered counselling or talking therapy, where you can talk with trained mental health professionals about what you are feeling and ways you can cope.
For more tips and advice, visit our guide on how to speak to your GP about mental health.
Keep a journal
Take a few minutes every day to write down how you are feeling. This can be a helpful way to let out your emotions. It can also help you to recognise what is bothering you and any patterns in what triggers you or causes you to feel bad.
If you don’t like writing, try doodling or drawing. Remember this is just a way to express yourself, there’s no right or wrong way to do this.
If you want to, you could show your journal to any mental health professionals who are supporting you to help them understand what you are going through.
Small changes that can boost your mood
- Consider how your use of social media is affecting your mood. Only follow accounts that make you feel positive and safe.
- Make sure you get enough sleep and stay hydrated – this can reduce your stress levels.
- Take time out when you need to.
- Think of three things you are grateful for each day.
- Be as kind to yourself as you would be to your best friend – think about the advice and support you would give someone else if you heard they were struggling.
For more tips, read our blog, 'Small habits that can benefit your mental health'.
Practise meditation or mindfulness
Some people find this really helps them to feel calm and grounded, especially when they’re going through a distressing time.
To get started, read our blog 'How I practice mindfulness to improve my mental health’.
Find ways to keep yourself safe
It’s really important to keep yourself as safe as possible and reduce your risk of serious self-injury. Even though you want to stop self-harming, you might not feel able to stop straight away. Sometimes it can take time to find new ways to cope, and that’s normal. In the meantime, think about other things you can do in the moment when you feel the urge to self-harm building. You could try to:
- go for a walk or do some gentle exercise
- focus on your breathing
- text a friend and let them know you need them to help you take your mind off things
- play music and sing or dance along
- hold an ice cube
- write down your thoughts
- hit a cushion or pillow
- tear up a magazine or newspaper
- make a self-soothe box
It is helpful if you tell your GP exactly what you are doing and what your worries are. This might feel daunting, but if you are honest with your doctor they can help you reduce some of the risks involved with your behaviour, as well as helping you get the support you need.
If you need medical treatment for your injuries, do make sure you get it. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to go to your GP or hospital. They are there to help you get better and it is not their job to judge you.
You can also go to your local hospital A&E or medical centre if you are worried about what you might do to yourself and let them know your concern.
If you are in an emergency or worried for your life call 999.
Where to get help
See below for a list of organisations and helpline services that have information to support you.
YoungMinds Crisis Messenger
Provides free, 24/7 text support for young people across the UK experiencing a mental health crisis.
All texts are answered by trained volunteers, with support from experienced clinical supervisors.
Texts are free from EE, O2, Vodafone, 3, Virgin Mobile, BT Mobile, GiffGaff, Tesco Mobile and Telecom Plus.
Texts can be anonymous, but if the volunteer believes you are at immediate risk of harm, they may share your details with people who can provide support.
Text: YM to 85258
Opening times: 24/7
If you’re under 19 you can confidentially call, chat online or email about any problem big or small.
Can provide a BSL interpreter if you are deaf or hearing-impaired.
Hosts online message boards where you can share your experiences, have fun and get support from other young people in similar situations.
Phone: 0800 1111
Opening times: 9am - midnight, 365 days a year