This information aims to:

  • help you to understand self-harm, what can cause it and keep it going
  • help you to explore ways of controlling self-harm
  • help others in knowing how to respond


What is self-harm?

Self-harm is sometimes known as self-injury and describes a wide range of things people do to themselves to harm their body. Often people who self-harm do not want to die, however many experience suicidal thoughts at times.

Some of the ways in which people self-harm include:

  • cutting or burning themselves
  • hitting or biting themselves
  • hitting walls or other hard objects
  • pulling out their hair
  • taking overdoses.

Other common harmful actions like smoking, excessive drinking, driving dangerously, using substances like glue or taking drugs are NOT usually seen as self-harm in this sense. Eating disorders may be thought by some to be a form of self-harm but are not the focus of this leaflet.

For some, self-harm can continue over many months or years without becoming dangerous, but sometimes it can result in death or permanent injury even if the person themselves does not necessarily intend this. Self-harm needs to be taken seriously, but it is important to respond to it in a calm and helpful way.


Who self-harms?

Although people rarely talk about self-harm it is relatively common, little understood and can be very distressing.


Why do people self-harm?

The underlying reasons why someone might self-harm are often complex.  People may find it difficult to explain why they self-harm and those around them often find it hard to understand. The reasons people self-harm varies widely from person to person and sometimes from one time to the next.

Sometimes self-harm is used as a way of coping with difficult feelings or experiences. This may include anxiety, depression, bullying, being abused or family breakdown but can involve many other problems that people face in their everyday lives. Other reasons commonly described include:

  • to relieve tension, pressure or anger
  • to feel something - to know you still exist
  • to feel in control
  • to get a buzz
  • to express, escape or stop bad feelings
  • to punish yourself because you feel you are ‘bad’
  • to let people know how bad things are
  • to get people to listen to you.


How other people react to self-harm

Sometimes people who self-harm are accused of attention seeking. They can also be considered a threat to others. This is not usually the case but can lead to unhelpful attitudes and responses from other people. Above all, most people who self-harm need understanding, and their families and friends need support.

Knowing someone is self-harming and not being able to stop them can be very distressing. If it is someone close to you, you may feel angry, confused, frightened, worried and helpless. Sometimes this may cause you to react in unhelpful ways.


Helpful attitudes and approaches

Helpful attitudes and approaches might include:

  • non-judgemental acceptance and respect
  • acknowledge and accept the person’s pain and distress
  • be supportive, calm and practical
  • listen respectfully
  • treat the person with dignity
  • don’t take it personally
  • don’t force things- trust takes time
  • never issue ultimatums


Always try to reduce the person’s access to any tablets or other means of self-harm. Talk to them about this.


What can I do to manage my self-harm?

Some of the following suggestions may help you to control your self-harming behaviour:

  • Keep a diary of your self-harm making a note of the situations, thoughts and feelings which triggered it. This may help you to understand it better.
  • Keep away from things you may use to harm yourself
  • Delay or distract: do something that will take your mind of self-harm or delay the act for example reading a magazine, watching TV, listening to music, go for a walk, finding some company
  • Think of alternative non-harmful ways of managing your feelings. You may want to write a list of things to try. This may include:
  • talking to someone you trust
  • writing down or drawing/painting your feelings
  • doing some exercise (go for a run, swim, dance, run up and down the stairs)
  • relaxation and breathing exercises
  • shout out loud ‘no’ or ‘stop’


If you feel you must hurt yourself

  • Try less destructive ways of doing it for example:
  • pinching yourself instead of cutting,
  • rub an ice-cube where you were tempted to cut
  • put an elastic band around your wrist and flick it when you feel like cutting
  • Use clean implements
  • Learn to clean and dress cuts to avoid infection.


If you have taken an overdose you should attend your local A&E department or GP immediately. There are no safe limits for an overdose.


Mental health and substance misuse

It is not uncommon for people who have mental health issues to use substances such as alcohol and drugs at the same time. This is often referred to as having ‘dual diagnosis’. If this is the case for you it is important that you inform those involved in your care so that you can be offered the right services to help your recovery.


Support organisations

NHS Direct

Ring 111 from any landline or mobile phone free of charge

In an emergency



08457 909090

Mental Health Matters






Leaflet reference:




Date last updated:

12 / 2017

Archive date:

12 / 2020