Q&A: Self-harm

Last reviewed on 28 June 2021

If you’re self-harming or if you’re worried about a friend, there is help available. We know how important it is that you find the right support for you – you might find it helpful to confide in a family member, speak to your GP or contact a young person’s helpline, for example.

Self-harm is often a coping mechanism because you feel very anxious or stressed about something that’s going on in your life. Here on Good Thinking, you’ll find NHS-approved apps, articles, podcasts and videos to help reduce stress and boost your general mental wellbeing. We also provide links to support organisations and would encourage you to get in touch with them.

If you’re feeling vulnerable at the moment, you might prefer to read this article when you’re feeling calmer or stronger. If you need urgent mental health support, please contact your local 24/7 NHS mental health helpline (you can find the details here). If you, or someone else, is in crisis or needs urgent medical attention, call 999.

Self-harm is when you intentionally injure or hurt yourself. It might involve cutting your arms or legs, burning yourself, pulling out your hair or inserting objects into your body. In some cases, self-harm can involve taking an overdose without intending to end your life.

Some young people harm themselves as a way of coping with a difficult situation, such as bullying, exam pressure, money worries or the COVID-19 pandemic.

Self-harm can happen for a number of reasons, which can change over time, including:

  • To help you cope with something that is upsetting you or making you angry
  • As a response to intrusive or overwhelming thoughts
  • Because your friends (in real life and/or on social media) are self-harming and you feel under pressure to do it too
  • As a way to feel in control of your feelings
  • To create a physical pain that is worse than the emotional pain you feel
  • As a way to stop feeling numb or disconnected

Many young people who are self-harming find it difficult to ask for help. You might feel embarrassed or worried that you’ll be judged or treated differently. Please remember that your family and friends will want to be there for you and that you can also get professional support. Here are a few steps you could take:

  • Tell someone you trust (e.g. a parent, carer, friend or teacher): Try to explain what’s happening and how it makes you feel, then let them know how they can support you.
  • Contact a helpline: If you’d prefer to speak to a trained advisor, YoungMinds (text YM to 85258), Childline (call 0800 1111) and other confidential helplines are available. You might also find it useful to join a support group. Please exercise caution when sharing your experience in online forums – there is some really useful advice about this on the Samaritans website.
  • Talk to your GP: This might seem like a big step but your GP will be able to discuss what you’re going through and could refer you to a specialist self-harm service. If you’re nervous about going on your own, it’s fine to take a friend or relative with you.
  • Develop alternative coping strategies: Try to identify what triggers your self-harm behaviours and how it makes you feel (both physically and emotionally). When you have the urge to hurt yourself, do something else that distracts you, like listening to music or going for a walk.
  • Focus on your overall wellbeing: Exercise regularly, eat healthily and get enough sleep. Spend time with the people who matter to you and who have your back. Try to balance screen time with other activities – although there’s lots of great stuff online, the pressure of social media can be quite overwhelming at times.

Although every situation is different, you might have noticed changes in your friend’s behaviour and physical symptoms – perhaps they are withdrawn or angry or they have unexplained cuts and bruises.

First of all, stay calm and don’t bombard them with questions. This is a sensitive situation and they might feel embarrassed or ashamed.

Let your friend know they can talk to you when they’re ready and that you can help them to get support (e.g. from a confidential helpline or their GP).

You might find the free Combined Minds app useful as it helps friends and relatives to support young people with their mental wellbeing.

Good Thinking provides resources to promote self-care for anxiety, stress, sleep problems, low mood and other aspects of your mental wellbeing. You might find the following resources useful – try a few of our recommended apps and top tips to see what works for you:

Combined Minds (app)

Feeling Good Teens (app)

Five ways to good mental wellbeing (article)

How to face uncertain times and focus on the positives (article)

Move Mood (app)

What’s real and what’s not? How to spot disinformation, misinformation and fake news (article)

The following organisations offer online support and some have confidential helplines you can call – don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Childline (0800 1111)

Hopeline UK/Papyrus (0800 068 41 41)

Mind

NHS

Samaritans

The Mix (0808 808 4994)

YoungMinds (text YM to 85258)

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