Self-harm is when someone deliberately injures themselves, by cutting, scratching, or burning their skin, banging their head, or other ways of inflicting pain. This behaviour is most common in adolescents and young adults, who use it as a way to cope with painful or difficult feelings and situations. For some, it’s a means of gaining a sense of control. For others, giving themselves physical pain provides a distraction from emotional pain. Others may feel guilty, ashamed or unworthy for some reason and use the pain as a self-punishment.
Self-harm is a very unhealthy coping mechanism that people can find very difficult to stop. While people who self-harm are not generally trying to kill themselves, they are putting themselves at risk of unintended serious harm.
Signs and symptoms
Unfortunately, self-harm is not always easy to detect. People caught in this behaviour tend to harm themselves in private and hide the signs from others—for example, by wearing long sleeves to hide cuts on their arms.
There are a number of behaviours that could indicate a person is harming themselves. Mood swings, pulling away from family and friends, falling behind at school, or expressing a lot of worry and anxiety are signs of distress. If you notice these behaviours in your friend or child, keep an eye out for unexplained nicks and scratches, or straight cuts on the arms or legs—often in parallel lines. If your friend or child is wearing long pants and long sleeves in warm weather, this may also be cause for concern.
Find a quiet time and place where you can talk to them. Ask them how they’re feeling, listen carefully, and let them know you're always there to listen and support them with any problems they’re having.
The person may not want to reveal that they're harming themselves, and you have to approach the topic carefully. Becoming angry, calling the behaviour “stupid” or “crazy”, or begging or ordering them to stop, will not help them cope any better with their distress. Instead, encourage them to learn more about self-harm and offer to take them to see your family doctor or a mental health professional. Explain that they need some extra help finding healthier ways to cope with their feelings. It can take a while for a person who self-harms to let go of the behaviour, but with the proper treatment and support, they can do it.
There are lots of reasons why people deliberately hurt themselves, which is often referred to as self-harm. This might mean cutting, burning or scratching your skin over and over. Self-harm is most common in adolescence and young adults. You might harm yourself as a coping mechanism because it provides temporary relief from distress. You might self harm when you are feeling really anxious, depressed and overwhelmed or just not feeling like you are worth anything. Self-harm is NOT the same as making a suicide attempt as the intent is most often to feel pain, but not to die. However, self-harming behaviour might be life threatening and there is an increase in suicide among those who self-harm.
If you are cutting yourself, you are probably having trouble coping. You are not alone. But like using drugs, self-harm only makes things feel better in the short term. In the long term, the problems are still there. It is important to reach out. Get support from someone you trust - family, friends, a youth leader or a school counsellor. Talk to your family doctor or a mental health professional. They can help you get treatment.