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Self-harm is when somebody intentionally damages or injures their body. It's usually a way of coping with, or expressing overwhelming emotional distress. Self-harm can affect people of all ages and genders, but it is more common amongst younger people. 


People self-harm as part of coping with a specific problem and subsequently, stop self-harming once the problem has been resolved. Other people may self-harm for years or even decades after initially self-harming to cope with a variety of emotional problems and challenges they may be faced with.

People can deliberately harm themselves in many ways including the following:

  • Cutting, scratching or burning their skin

  • Punching, slapping or hitting themselves

  • Misusing alcohol or drugs, including overdosing

  • Poisoning themselves with tablets or chemicals

  • Persistently interfering with wound healing

  • Deliberately starving themselves

  • Excessively exercising

  • Piercing the skin with sharp objects

  • Pulling out hair

People who self-harm are usually struggling to cope with overwhelming emotional problems or very difficult circumstances. Specific reasons for self-harm may include:

  • Relieving distressful emotions

  • A way of communicating their distress

  • Bereavement or the end of a relationship

  • Physical or sexual abuse

  • Confusion about sexuality

  • Being bullied or having difficult relationships

  • Alcohol and drug misuse

  • Psychological causes such as hearing voices telling them to self-harm

  • Financial worries​ 


Signs and symptoms of Self-Harm

  • Unexplained cuts, bruises, cigarette burns, usually on their wrists, arms, thighs or chest​

  • Signs of low self-esteem, such as blaming themselves for any problems or thinking they're not good enough

  • Keeping themselves fully covered at all time, even in hot weather

  • Signs of depression, such as low mood, tearfulness or a lack of motivation or interest in anything

  • Becoming very withdrawn and not speaking to others

  • Claiming to have frequent accidents or mishaps

  • Self-loathing and expressing a wish to punish themselves

Treatments available for Self-Harm

If the person's physical injuries are not of a serious nature, the first option is to book an appoint with their GP. They can assess any previous injuries and scars and recommend further assessments with a specialist.

Their GP will ask questions to see if they have any underlying medical conditions, such as depression or anxiety and treat accordingly. If the person's physical injuries do require treatment in hospital, they will receive the necessary medical treatment and then be referred to a psychiatrist for an assessment before leaving hospital. 


Following assessment, any further treatment will usually be jointly decided between the person who self-harms and the healthcare professionals. It will be a specific programme for the individual, according to their needs. 

In most cases, talking treatments will be recommended for people who self-harm, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This involves attending sessions with a therapist to talk about their thoughts and feelings, and how these affect their behaviour and wellbeing. 

If the person also has a mental health problems such as anxiety or depression, their treatment plan may also involved medication, such as antidepressants. Other recommendations may include specialist treatment for scars, attending peer support groups and self-help techniques. ​

Aiding another with Self-harm 

  • Assess the danger and keep yourself safe. Move to a safer place or remove the danger which has caused their injuries. 

  • Do not ignore their injuries, or overly focus on them - stay calm.

  • Ask if you can provide first aid, if you are able to do so. Depending on the extent of the injury, you may need to call the emergency services. 

  • Let the person know that you care for them and you are there to help. 

  • Relate to them as a whole person, not just their condition.  


Women are thought to be more likely to self-harm then men, but this could be because men are more likely to engage in behaviours such as punching a wall, which isn't always recognised as self-harm or doesn't come to the attention of hospitals.

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