What is self-harm?

There are many reasons why someone self-harms, but most often it’s a way of coping with strong or difficult feelings and emotions. It might happen only once, or it can be a repeat behaviour. If you’re self-harming or having thoughts of self-harming, you can learn why this might be happening, how to stop harming yourself and where to get help.

In this article, we will cover:

  • What is self-harm?

  • Why do people self-harm?

  • Signs of self-harm and how to help a friend who is showing these signs

  • How to stop self-harm

  • How to tell someone you self-harm

girl looking away from camera

What is self-harm

Self-harm is when someone intentionally hurts themselves. It can take many different forms. For most young people who self-harm, it’s a way to cope with painful emotions and not a direct attempt to end their life.

Self-harm can result in serious injuries and sometimes even in death. Talk to someone, call a doctor, or call 000 immediately if you or someone you know has injured themselves and you’re worried about them.

Types of self-harm

Content advice: reading about self-harm methods may help you identify if you are self-harming, but it can also be distressing and potentially triggering. Before reading further, consider if skipping this section is the best choice for you right now.

Self-harm isn’t always obvious and sometimes it may not have any physical signs. If you, or someone you know, is self-harming, it may look like:

  • cutting the skin

  • hitting yourself and/or pulling out your hair

  • scratching, burning or picking at the skin

  • intentionally overdosing on drugs or alcohol to cause harm to the body

  • deliberately fasting or bingeing to cause harm to the body.

Why do people self-harm?

There are many reasons why someone might self-harm. However, most often it’s a way of trying to cope with strong feelings and emotions. Learning to manage and regulate difficult feelings and emotions is a part of growing up. But some people can find this particularly hard, and their emotions – feelings like guilt, sadness and self-hatred – can seem completely overwhelming.

It might feel like self-harm can help in managing these emotions in the short term, but it can be really dangerous and could have a negative impact in the long term.

Reasons young people might hurt themselves include:

  • to try and express complicated or hidden feelings

  • to communicate that they need some support

  • to prove to themselves that they’re not invisible

  • to feel in control

  • to get an immediate sense of relief.

It’s important to remember that self-harm isn’t ‘attention seeking’. Some people might do it as a way of letting others know they aren’t coping. This might be because they don’t know any other way to tell people, or because they’re worried that others won’t take how they’re feeling seriously.

Despite what many people think, people who self-harm don’t always have thoughts of suicide or want to die. Although some people who self-harm may also be having thoughts of suicide, their self-harming isn’t the same as a suicide attempt. Self-harm isn’t always linked to suicidal thoughts or intent, but people who self-harm may be at greater risk of accidentally causing life-threatening injuries.

Signs of self-harm

It can be hard to see the signs of self-harm, as people will often try to keep them hidden. If you think someone in your life is self-harming, you may have noticed some changes in their social and emotional behaviour or in their physical appearance.

Social signs may include:

  • wearing long-sleeved clothes in hot weather

  • avoiding swimming or other activities where a lot of their body can be seen

  • creating strange excuses for injuries

  • being less socially active or less interested in school and hobbies.

Emotional and physical signs may include:

  • having frequent injuries or sores

  • being less energetic

  • often feeling sick and unwell

  • feeling sad, angry or irritable

  • appearing disconnected or disinterested during conversations

  • putting less effort into their hygiene or appearance

  • feeling guilty or ashamed

  • seeming depressed or anxious.

What to do if a friend shows signs that they’re self-harming

If you think a friend is self-harming and you want to support them, it’s important not to pressure them into stopping or to tell others straight away. You can’t force someone to stop harming themself; they need to make that decision for themself.

Try mentioning that you’ve noticed some signs of self-harm and let them know you’d like to support them, not judge them. Then, listen to what they have to say. Share resources like this article with them and, if you’re willing, offer to be a support person for them.

How to stop self-harm

It can be really hard to change self-harming behaviours and to learn better coping skills. If you self-harm and you want to stop, the first step is to make a conscious decision to break that cycle. You may be unable to stop straight away, but don’t be disheartened – stopping self-harm is a journey and it’s important to be kind to yourself along the way. The good news is that there are many things you can do to help you stop harming yourself.

Seek professional help

There are a number of professional treatments available that can help you manage self-harming behaviours. Talk to a doctor, psychologist or psychiatrist to learn about them and decide what might be best for you. Psychological therapies can help you understand why you harm yourself and how to develop new ways of managing difficult emotions.

One possible approach is a type of therapy called DBT, or dialectical behaviour therapy. It’s based on the idea of mindfulness and helps you to learn specific skills for managing distress and regulating your emotions.

Use online and phone services

Asking for support can feel overwhelming. If you’re scared to speak about your self-harming or if you feel uncomfortable talking to someone face-to-face, try a phone support line or an online webchat. These are great options for when you want to speak to a professional who understands, but from the comfort of your safe space.

While it can feel daunting to call a helpline, the people on the other end are there to provide you with support and care. They aren’t there to judge you, and speaking with someone about what you’re going through may help prevent self-harm behaviours.

  • Lifeline – available 24/7 for webchat and phone support on 13 11 14.

  • Kids Helpline – available 24/7 for webchat and phone support on 1800 55 1800.

  • ReachOut PeerChat – available for webchat Monday to Friday 1 to 8 pm (Sydney time). Book in a chat here.

  • eHeadspace – available for webchat and phone support 7 days a week between 9 am and 1 am (Melbourne time).

Find more specific support services options here.

Enlist a support team

Your support team are people you can talk to whenever you need help or support or if you want to share a win. They are your cheerleaders on the journey to stopping self-harm. Have a think about who in your life would be able to support you – whether it’s a family member, friend, teacher, counsellor or a doctor – and don’t be afraid to ask for their help.

If you aren’t sure you have someone in your life who could be in your support team, consider reaching out to a peer worker or joining the ReachOut Online Community where you can share updates and ask for support from other people in similar situations to you.

Practise self-help

There are techniques you can use to manage urges to self-harm. The more alternatives to self-harm you equip yourself with, the more likely you are to develop helpful coping strategies and not rely on self-harm.

Self-harm is often a sign of other stresses in your life that you need support to cope with. Regularly practising self-help, not just when you feel an urge to self-harm, can help build your coping skills and reduce your urges to self-harm as a response to these stresses.

Try different things

Don’t be put off if your attempt to give up self-harming doesn’t work the first time. Different approaches, as well as different treatments, work for different people, so be prepared to experiment to find what works for you.

How to tell someone you self-harm

Telling someone you’re self-harming can feel scary. You may be worried they will judge you or won’t be able to help you. Prepare for the conversation by planning what you’d like to say and how you’ll respond to the questions they’re likely to ask.

Anyone you tell will likely want to know why and how you are self-harming, and make a plan to help you stop. Have a think about which support options are right for you and how this person could best help you.

A good way to start the conversation is to ask them simply to sit and listen, not to interrupt, and to try and not judge you. Let them know you’re nervous about opening up, and that you’re coming to them for support and help.

You can also provide them with resources that will help them better understand your thoughts and actions. If you think you are depressed or anxious, this conversation could be a good chance to bring this up and to ask for help accessing professional support.

What can I do now?

  • Speak to someone who understands at ReachOut PeerChat.

  • Call a helpline if you need to talk to someone.