Helping you get through tough times

If your friend is self-harming

It’s hard to understand why someone would want to harm themselves. Discovering that someone you know is self-harming can be difficult and upsetting.

Yellow flowersIt’s normal to feel shocked, angry, sad, confused, or maybe even guilty. Understanding why people self-harm, and how you can support your friend will help you cope with the situation.

What is self-harm?

Self-harm (also known as self-injury) is when someone inflicts physical harm on themselves, usually in secret, and often without anyone else knowing. Some examples of self-harm include

  • Cutting
  • Burning
  • Biting or hitting their body
  • Pulling out hair
  • Scratching and picking at sores on their skin

Self-harm is not necessarily a suicide attempt. Engaging in self-harm may not mean that someone wants to die. Most commonly, self-harm is a behaviour that’s used to cope with difficult or painful feelings.

It is rarely used as “attention seeking”. In fact, most people who self-harm try to keep it a secret and may feel ashamed of it. But, it is still important to take it seriously.

Why do people do it?

People who self-harm are usually experiencing painful emotions they don’t know how to deal with. These emotions can be caused by a stressful life event or could seem to come out of nowhere. Whatever the causes, these strong emotions are very distressing for the person experiencing them.

Self-harm may be used as a way to cope with these strong feelings when the person does not have any other coping mechanisims to deal with them. Some people self-harm to express difficult or hidden feelings, or to provide a feeling of control.

While self-harm can bring an immediate sense of relief for the person, it is only a temporary solution. Whatever the reason, take it seriously.

With help and support it is possible to learn healthier ways to deal with strong emotions that do not involve self-harming.

Signs to look out for

Sometimes it can be difficult to tell that a friend is self-harming, often because they may be trying to hide it. However, there are a few signs to look for:

  • Unexplained wounds or scars
  • Blood stains
  • Sharp objects or cutting instruments
  • Frequent “accidents”
  • Covering up with long sleeves or trousers even in warm weather
  • Needing to be alone for long periods of time
  • Isolation and irritability.

How to help

Your friend may need help, but may not be sure how to ask for it. Try asking your friend how they are feeling. They may not feel comfortable talking about it, and that’s OK. Just be sure to let your friend know you’re there to listen if they want to talk.

As they express how they’re feeling or what they are going through, try not to be judgemental. They are probably already judging themselves, and may be embarrassed of their behaviours.

Be considerate and respectful

Even if you don’t understand, or find it difficult to accept what they are doing. Again, just let them know you are there for them.

Don’t expect change quickly, keep in mind that treatment for self-harm is a long and hard journey. The person will only be able to stop when they are ready and able to do so.

Again, you may feel shocked, worried, or helpless after learning that your friend is self-harming. It can be easy to focus on the injuries, but it is very important to keep in mind how difficult your friend is finding life at the moment.

Try talking to them about the feelings that are causing them to self-harm rather then the behaviour itself.

Don’t go it alone. Finding out that someone you know is self-harming can be very stressful. It’s important that you look after yourself and find support for you in dealing with this.

Getting help

If your friend is interested in seeking help, there are a number of things they can do. If they need someone to talk to, a first step may be to talk to the Samaritans (116 123) – which is anonymous, and provides a 24 hour telephone listening service.

It is also important to take care of the injuries that are caused, and if necessary, seek medical help through your GP or, if it’s serious, a hospital’s emergency department.

In most situations, doctors and other health professionals must keep information given to them by patients or clients confidential. However, they are required to report information they receive if they have serious concerns about someone’s safety. See confidentiality.

This article was last reviewed on 03 May 2017

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