I think my friend is self-harming

It’s not always easy to tell if someone is self-harming, but if you’re worried about a friend it’s worth knowing what the signs are. Self-harm is classified quite broadly and is identified as being any kind of deliberate harm to the body. There are a couple of ways to tell if your friend is self-harming and if you’re really worried it can help to know what the next steps are to ensure your friend’s safety.

This might help if you:

  • Are worried about a friend
  • Know someone who is engaging in deliberate self-harm
  • Want to know what self-harm is
  • Want to know how you can tell if someone is self-harming
  • Want to know what to do if someone is self-harming

What classifies as self-harm?

Self-harm refers to people deliberately hurting or causing injury to their bodies, sometimes with the intention of dying and sometimes without wanting to die. There are a number of reasons why people self-harm, ranging from tough personal experiences to damaging relationships with others. Self-harm is not only limited to injury on the outside of a person’s body, but also relates to internal injury.

Examples of some of the most common forms of self-harm in young people include:

  • Cutting
  • Overdosing
  • Poisoning
  • Head banging
  • Burning
  • Strangling oneself
  • Jumping from heights

If you are worried that your friend is self-harming, it’s understandable that you would want to be as supportive as you can. However, it’s a lot to take on by yourself, especially if no one else is aware of what’s going on. If you are worried that your friend could be at serious risk of hurting themselves, check out the emergency help section for people you can talk to.

Self-harm can be really difficult to understand, and no wonder; not only are there a lot of myths out there around self-harm, but it can be really hard to define exactly what self-harm is. The causes of self-harm are really varied, and how to tell if someone is self-harming, isn’t always straightforward. 

We can give you some definition around what self-harm is, but the bottom line is, trust your instincts. If you think your friend is in trouble or distress, tell someone like a teacher, family member or counsellor about your concerns.

How to tell if your friend is self-harming

Since self-harm is generally a private coping mechanism, it's possible your friend might be ashamed and not ready to admit to anyone what they’re doing. It’s quite common for people who are self-harming to try and hide evidence of self- harm, so it is not always as obvious as people think.

If you are concerned that your friend is self-harming but you don’t know for sure, you can try to talk to them about how they’re feeling and let them know you're there for them if they’re feeling down or stressed. By being open and supportive, you’re giving permission for your friend to feel safe enough to talk to someone. Regardless of whether your friend is actually engaging in self-harm, there is no reason why you can’t show your support for them if they seem to be going through a tough time.

What to do next?

If your friend tells you that they’re self-harming, it’s important that you encourage them to seek help. Even though they may resist telling other people, it’s important to acknowledge that you aren’t able to help them all on your own. Telling someone like the school counsellor, a teacher, a parent or their GP can be a great way of finding out some helpful and successful strategies to cope with self-harm.

What can I do now?

  • Encourage them to talk to someone.
  • Recommend the ReachOut NextStep tool, it gives personalised support options for self-harming. 
  • Organise a creative activity that they might enjoy.
  • Take an hour each day for yourself to relax and talk to someone about how you're feeling.
Last reviewed: 04 May, 2016
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