What is self-harm?

TRIGGER WARNING! This page contains information about self-harm which may bring up difficult feelings.

Self-harm is when people hurt themselves on purpose, usually as a way of coping with or communicating overwhelming or distressing feelings. Self-harm should be seen as a symptom of distress or a sign that something is wrong. Young people who self-harm often say this helps to release the build-up of difficult feelings or to express intense emotions. However, self-harm only provides a temporary relief and in the long run can make people feel worse.

There are many ways that people self-harm. When people talk about self-harm they normally mean cutting, however burning, pulling out hair, scratching and picking at skin, causing bruises, hitting walls or head-banging are also common forms of self-harm. Over-dosing on tablets and swallowing poisons or sharp objects are serious forms of self-harm.

Self-harm is most common in young people aged 11 – 25yrs. However, it is hard to tell how many people self-harm as it is often very private. Research suggests around 10 – 15% of young people in the UK regularly self-harm, and while it is more common in young women, rates are increasing among young men. Around 25,000 young people are admitted to hospital each year due to the severity of their injuries.

In the media self-harm is often linked to suicide and in some serious cases this may be true, but it is important to understand that most young people who self-harm are trying to make themselves feel better and it is normally a way of coping or asking for help.

What causes people to self-harm?

People don’t always know why they self-harm and there may not be a single cause or reason. Some people self-harm when they are feeling very strong emotions, such as sadness, anger, anxiety, loneliness, self-hate, guilt or tension. These can become overwhelming and self-harm provides a release and can help people feel better temporarily.

For others self-harm is a way of expressing their emotions or asking for support, for some it is about gaining control when they feel that other things in their life are out of their control, and for a few people self-harming is a way of punishing themselves or expressing guilt or shame. Sometimes people in distress can feel ‘numb’, like a ‘zombie’ or disconnected from the world and self-harm is a way of feeling ‘real’ or ‘alive’ again.

Some people who self-harm are experiencing mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, anorexia or psychosis, but this is often not the case and self-harm is not a mental health diagnosis in itself. However, overcoming underlying problems such as these can be key to overcoming self-harm. Other things that might make someone more at risk of self-harm include a difficult family life, being bullied, being abused, questioning gender or sexuality, low self-esteem, a physical health problem, someone close to you being ill or dying, being under a lot of stress or feeling isolated and alone.

How do I know if someone is self-harming?

People often keep self-harming a secret because of shame or fear of discovery. For example, if they cut themselves, they may cover up their skin. It’s often up to close family and friends to notice when somebody is self-harming, and to approach the subject with care and understanding.

Signs people may be self-harming:

  • Unexplained cuts, bruises or cigarette burns – usually around their wrists, arms, thighs or chests
  • Keeping themselves fully covered at all times, even in hot weather
  • Signs of depression, such as low mood, tearfulness or lack of motivation/interest in anything
  • Self-loathing and expressing a wish to punish themselves
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Becoming very withdrawn and not speaking to others
  • Signs of low self-esteem, such as blaming themselves for any problems or thinking they’re not good enough for anything
  • Signs they have been pulling their hair out

What helps?

It is important to recognise that self-harm can be very dangerous. It is a sign that something is wrong and if people go to far they risk seriously harming themselves and even dying accidentally. So, keeping yourself safe and getting help as soon as you feel able to is essential.

In the moment you could try safer alternatives to self-harm such as:

  • Holding an ice cube in your hand or rubbing it where you would normally cut
  • Using a red pen to draw a line where you would cut
  • Snapping an elastic band on your wrist, arm or leg
  • Screaming or shouting (maybe into a pillow)
  • Having a cold shower
  • Try to tear up the yellow pages or something similar

Check out this video to hear how other young people have overcame self-harm.

If you or a friend have an injury that is worrying you or seems infected, or have taken an overdose, then it is important to get medical attention as quickly as possible. Don’t rely in the internet for advice, call your GP, see your school nurse, tell a parent, carer or teacher. You can also call or chat to Childline online.

In urgent cases go to your local A&E. If you or a friend’s life may be in danger then call 999 immediately, you won’t be in trouble.

How can I help myself?

Stopping self-harm is never easy, especially if it helps you deal with your feelings. It may be difficult to imagine coping without it. Talking about it is an important first step step and getting professional help to address underlying issues may eventually men that you no longer need to use self-harm to cope.

In the meantime, there are things you can try yourself. There is no magic quick fix, and different things will work for different people. By trying different coping mechanisms you’ll find out what works for you.

Here are some suggestions from young people who have found other ways to cope:

  • Delay – self-harm tends to come in urges. Try applying the 15 minute rule and when you feel the urge to self-harm give your self 15 minutes before taking any action. In that time sit with your feelings, distract or relax yourself, or call a friend. When the time is up, see if you can extend it for a further 15 minutes, eventually you may the urge subsides altogether. If 15 minutes seems too long at first, try 5 minutes.
  • Connect – be around others. Go downstairs and sit with your family, go to a public place or a friend’s house, call or message someone you trust. Just try not to be alone until the urge passes. Talk about your feelings if you can to a professional, family member or friend. At night you could call childline on 0800 1111 (free) or Samaritans on 116 123 (free).
  • Distraction – Try to distract yourself another way. Watch Tv or Netflix/You Tube, do a puzzle, play computer games, do something creative, bake a cake, make a stress ball, do your homework, listen to music or tidy your room.
  • Express your feelings another way – Try drawing or writing down your feelings, you might want to tear them up afterwards or screw them into a tight ball and throw them away. Write poetry or song lyrics, play a musical instrument, dance or sing. Scream into a pillow or punch a cushion/punch bag. Let yourself cry.
  • Exercise – Try going for a run, walk or bike ride. If you don’t feel safe alone outside then try lifting weights, stretching, doing online yoga or exercise classes.
  • Relaxation – Some people find relaxation helps the feelings to pass. You could try deep breathing or yoga exercises. Listen to a relaxation songs or soothing music, have a bubble bath, read a book or watch a film, spend time with your pet.
  • Remember – Remember it is common to make progress and reduce your self-harm for a while and then slip back, remind yourself that this doesn’t mean you have failed, just keep going and take things one day at a time.


Hear Our Voice 1-2-1

Who are they?

The Hear Our Voice 1-2-1 NHS Commissioned service is a project that provides targeted one to one intervention to young people who are experiencing mild to moderate difficulties with their mental health and emotional well-being.

What Mental Health conditions do they support?

Anxiety, Depression, risk taking behaviours, low confidence and self-esteem.

What services do they provide?

  • A safe and inclusive environment that supports young people to explore
  • Mental health management
  • Resilience building
  • Positive coping strategies development
  • Supporting young people in setting and achieving their goals using a range of individual interventions including youth work and goal setting methods.

When are they open?

This can vary. Intervention usually takes place during weekdays; however, evenings and weekends are available to meet the needs of the young person.



How do I refer?

Via email: referral@ypc.org.uk

Who can be referred?

Children and young people aged 11-18 with mild to moderate mental health

Mind and Body

Who are they?

Mind and Body is a programme which supports young people aged 13–17 to better manage their thoughts and actions associated with self-harm. The programme looks to support those who do not meet Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) thresholds but who could benefit from specialised input.

Participants are identified using a short online screening survey by school staff and through self-referrals to the programme. The programme comprises eight group sessions, accompanied by three one-to-one sessions with a practitioner for needs-based support

What Mental Health conditions do they support?

  • Self-harm

What services do they provide?

Their programme consists of eight group sessions, accompanied by three one-to-one sessions with a practitioner for needs-based support.

When are they open?

During School hours


They mainly operate within Secondary Schools across the County. Location is dependent on the young people they are supporting but they can support community groups who are supporting young people who’ve been referred in to their service via CAMHS, The Early Help and GPs.

How do I refer?

Participants are identified using a short

online screening survey by school staff and through self-referrals to the programme.

We do not accept referrals for individual young people but work with whole school year groups and use a short survey and work closely with the school to identify appropriate young people for the programme.

Who can be referred?

Young people aged 13-17 experiencing self-harming behaviours.

Speak Up Cornwall

Who are they?

Run by Young people Cornwall (YPC) speak up Cornwall is a participation group for young people aged 13-24 looking at, supporting with youth voice and creating tool kits for mental health services across Cornwall. Speak Up Cornwall works at both a local reginal and national levels. It also supports services at a strategic level as well as service entry level.

What Mental Health conditions do they support?

  • Current members have a wide range of mental health issues.
  • What services do they provide?
  • Participation group
  • Support
  • Peer Support

When are they open?

Days and times will be confirmed by the group lead.


They meet once a month at Zebs youth centre The Leats, Town Centre, Truro TR1 3AG.

They also work remotely (over social media) and attend meetings, conferences and events all over Cornwall, the southwest and nationally.

How do I refer?

Via emailing Kirsten.Jenkins@ypc.org.uk or through the Young People Cornwall referral form which can be requested by emailing: referral@ypc.org.uk

Who can be referred?

Young People aged 13-24 with an awareness of mental health services.

Young Men’s group

Who are they?

Run by Young people Cornwall (YPC) the service is for male individuals aged 11-19 with low level mental health issues to engage in group work. Their 1 to 1 service is first offered, with invitation to join a group. Group operates similar to a youth group in that young people can relax in a safe space, engage with workers and other group members through activities, enjoy informal discussion and have something to eat. Group trips to residential centres, activity providers and meals out also happen.

What Mental Health conditions do they support?

A wide range of low level general mental health concerns such as Anxiety, depression, stress, low mood, self-harm etc.

What services do they provide?

  • 1 to 1 work
  • Group work

When are they open?

Two groups are run once a week on a weekday evening for two and a half hours.


Previous groups took place in Launceston & Liskeard but these will be moving locations towards the Redruth, Camborne & Pool area as well as St Ives.

How do I refer?

Via email: referral@ypc.org.uk

Referrals can be made from a wide range of sources such as yourself, school, charity service, CAMHS, G.P, parent, targeted youth worker and police. Once referrals have been received workers aim to make contact within 7 days.

Who can be referred?

Young men aged 11-19. Usual referrals indicate willingness to get involved with group work at some point. Criteria can include; social skills, social isolation, low level mental health, learning disability, victims of crime, general low confidence and self-esteem.

Mental Health Support Team

Who are they?

The Mental Health Support Team support primary aged children in schools by working with a Senior Mental Health Lead who has a dedicated role in the school to deliver whole school approaches to promoting better mental health, alongside offering one-one interventions.  The service also focuses on reaching out to all children who are not in school for whatever reason, such as electively home educated children.  The service works closely with the investment from Headstart Kernow in building on the Trauma Informed Schools training already implemented in Cornwall.

What Mental Health conditions do they support?

  • Anxiety
  • Low Mood
  • Social and Friendship Problems
  • Mild Conduct Problems
  • Problems maintaining concentration
  • Learning Readiness

What services do they provide?

  • Delivering Children and Young People Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies (CYPIAPT) evidence-based interventions for mild to moderate mental health and emotional wellbeing needs.
  • Supporting senior mental health leads in education settings to develop and introduce their whole-school approach to mental health and emotional wellbeing.
  • Providing timely advice to staff and liaising with external specialist services so that children and young people can get the right support and remain in education.

When are they open?

Monday to Friday 9am – 5pm, with the exception that some interventions are delivered at a time suitable for families.


Main Base operates from Shaw House, Porthpean Road, St. Austell PL26 6AD, with Teams working throughout Primary Schools in Restormel and Kerrier localities.

How do I refer?

Referrals should be made via the Early Help Hub following an initial discussion with EMHP.

Contact the Early Help Hub by calling 01872 322277 or emailing earlyhelphub@cornwall.gov.uk

All referrals into the service are discussed at a weekly MDT. If there is no intervention deemed suitable for a young person’s needs, the referral is returned to the original referrer with explanation and suggestions for alternative services.

Who can be referred?

The I Thrive framework considers individual needs and requests for help.  The main criteria for support would be around whether there is a low intensity CBT intervention that would meet the child’s needs.

They aim to have a discussion with the Senior Mental Health Lead (SML) first, if possible. There is an expectation that the referrer will discuss any young people they would like to refer with an Education Mental health Practitioner (EMHP), prior to sending a request through to the Early Help Hub.

Myth buster #1

Myth: People who self-harm are just attention seeking.

Fact: Self-harming is often a coping strategy that people use to help them manage difficult feelings or experiences, normally this is very private and personal. Sometimes people Self-harm because they find it hard to ask for help in other ways. This doesn’t mean they don’t need someone support or positive attention.

Myth buster #2

Myth: People who self-harm are suicidal

Fact: Most people who self-harm do not wish to end their lives, the act of self-harm can be coping mechanism people use to help them to cope with difficult experiences and keep living. Self-harming does not mean someone has a serious mental illness either. However, some people who self-harm also have suicidal feeling, and sometimes self-harm which gets out of hand can lead to accidental death.

Myth buster #3

Myth: Self-harm is just cutting

Fact: Self-harm can be thought of as a physical response to an emotional pain. Cutting is a common form of self-harm, but burning, bruising, over-dosing or self-poisoning, getting in to fights, abusing drugs and alcohol and taking risks can also be forms of self-harm. If there is no immediate risk of physical harm, focusing on how someone is feeling rather than what they have done to themselves is helpful.

Useful resources

The Mix

For expert advice, tips and real life stories and videos

Epic Friends

For more information, ways to cope and advice for supporting a friend

Need help now?

If you need to speak to someone urgently call your GP or family doctor!


NHS 24/7 helpline : 0800 038 5300
Childline up to 19 yrs: 0800 1111
The Samaritans: 116 123
In an emergency go to A&E or call 999