How to help a friend who self-harms

It’s not always easy to tell if someone is self-harming, but if you’re worried about a friend, it’s important to know what signs to look for. Learn more about self-harm and what you can do to make sure your friend is safe.

This can help if:

  • you’re worried that a friend might be self-harming

  • you want to learn more about self-harm

  • you want to know what you can do as a friend to help.

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What is self-harm?

Self-harm is when someone hurts themselves intentionally. Read more about what self-harm is, and why people engage in it, here.

There are a lot of myths around self-harm, but it’s also really difficult to define exactly what self-harm is. People self-harm for different reasons and in different ways, and it’s not always obvious if they’re doing it intentionally.

How do I tell if my friend is engaging in self-harm?

We can give you a definition of what self-harm is, but the bottom line is: trust your instincts. If you think your friend is in trouble or distress, tell someone such as a teacher, family member or counsellor about your concerns. Regardless of whether or not your friend is self-harming, offering your support shows them that you care. Try to have an open, honest and supportive friendship with them. They’ll then feel that they can talk with you about self-harm if needed, and you can be open about your feelings, too.

Some tips and things to remember:

  • It’s common for people to hide that they self-harm.

  • People can feel ashamed about self-harming.

  • Ask your friend how things are going, or how they’re feeling, to open the way for a discussion about self-harm.

  • Let your friend know that you’re there for them if they feel down or stressed.

  • Tell your friend you’re worried about them, and why.

  • Be prepared for any reaction. If your friend seems angry or upset when you bring up the topic of self-harm, it’s probably only because they feel ashamed or are worried about what you think of them.

  • Encourage your friend to seek help from a GP, teacher or school counsellor.

  • Let your friend know before you tell someone else about their self-harm.

When should I tell someone else about the self-harm?

If you’re 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. It’s important to let someone such as a counsellor or a teacher know what’s going on as soon as possible. These people are trained to handle this kind of situation and should be able to help you make sure your friend stays safe.

Sharing your concern can feel like you’re betraying your friend, especially if they’ve made you promise not to tell anyone, but it's more important to ensure that your friend is safe. Let them know that the only reason you’re doing this is because you care about them and want them to be safe.

What should I do in an emergency?

If you’re worried that your friend could be at serious risk of hurting themselves, check out the urgent help section for people you can talk to.

If someone has harmed themselves intentionally, and they’re in physical or mental distress, it’s important that they get medical help. If the person is hurt badly, call an ambulance (dial 000, if you live in Australia) immediately.

How can I help a friend who self-harms?

Be a friend

Supporting a friend who self-harms can be challenging. Often the reasons why someone self-harms are complex, and managing these reasons needs help from someone like a psychologist, psychiatrist or counsellor. Once support is in place, your job is to continue being a friend: show support, keep doing the things you enjoy doing together, and let your friend know that you accept them for who they are. Be open and show them you care: direct them to self-help for self-harm for strategies they can use. Show them that there’s no need for them to feel ashamed.

Look after yourself

Sometimes it’s easy to get so concerned about a friend that you stop looking after yourself. It’s really important that you keep yourself safe, as well as looking out for your friend. It may be helpful for you to talk to someone you trust about what’s going on and how you feel. If things start to become overwhelming, it might help to take some time out. Keep up with things you enjoy, and exercise and eat well, so that you’re in a good mental place to be able to help.

What can I do now?

  • Encourage your friend to talk to someone.

  • Recommend the ReachOut NextStep tool, for personalised support options for self-harming.

  • Take an hour each day for yourself to relax, and talk to someone about how you're feeling.