What is self-harm?

Self-harm comes in many forms and can be really damaging to a person’s physical and mental health. There are many reasons people engage in self-harm, but it is most often used as a way of coping with difficult emotions. There are a number of things you can do if you are self-harming, ranging from enlisting a support team to practicing self-help techniques.

This might help if you...

  • are engaging in deliberate self-harm
  • know someone who is engaging in deliberate self-harm
  • want to know more about self-harm
  • are interested in how to treat self-harm
  • want to know the causes of self-harm
teen resting head on hand looking thoughtful while sitting against concrete wall
Self-harm can come in many different forms and can involve things other than physically harming oneself on the outside. Self-harm can also occur when someone harms themselves internally, for example, by purposefully swallowing something sharp or drinking something toxic. Though self-harm can result in serious bodily injury, and sometimes death, it is not necessarily the result of a desire to complete suicide.

Why do people self-harm?

Self-harm is mainly used as a way of trying to cope with strong feelings and emotions. The reasons people self-harm can really vary, however, many people engaging in self-harm have gone through tough experiences or damaging relationships which they are trying to cope with. Self-harm is not just “attention seeking”, although people do use it as a way of letting others know they aren’t coping.

Reasons young people have given for their self-harm include:
  • trying to express complicated or hidden feelings 
  • communicating a need for some support
  • proving to themselves that they are not invisible
  • feeling in control
  • getting an immediate sense of relief.
A person may self-harm as a result of feeling a sense of guilt, depression, low self-esteem or self-hatred, but it is important to note that self-harming behaviour can be due to multiple reasons and affects people from all walks of life.

What to do about self-harm

If a person relies on self-harm as a way of coping with difficult feelings, it can be really hard to change their behaviour and do something different. Breaking the cycle of self-harm is something a person has to make a conscious decision to do and no-one can make that decision for them.

The good news is that there are a number of successful treatments for self-harm ranging from professional help to self-help.

Seek professional help- There are a number of professional treatments available if you talk to a doctor, counsellor or psychologist. Some of these include talk therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy and dialectical behaviour therapy (an approach based on the idea of mindfulness), as well as certain medications. By talking to an expert you’re able to get a tailored treatment plan that will be adapted to your individual circumstances.

Use online and phone services- If you’d rather not talk to someone face-to-face, check out info on support services like Kids Helpline, Lifeline and eheadspace which provide both phone and online support services.

Enlist a support team- There is always someone out there who cares about your welfare; whether it’s a family member, friend, counsellor or doctor. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and tell someone how you’re feeling.

Practice self-help- There are heaps of techniques you can use to help yourself avoid using self-harm. The more alternatives to self-harm you provide yourself with, the more likely you are to develop more successful coping strategies.

Try different things- Don’t be put off if your attempt to give up self-harm doesn’t work the first time around. Different approaches, as well as different treatments, work for different people so be ready to experiment with what works for you.

What can I do now?

Last reviewed: 21 February, 2014
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