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

Self- harm is difficult to talk about and can be really hard to understand, but it is a lot more common than people think. At least 1 in 12 young people self-harm and this is probably an under-estimation – so if you are self-harming you are not alone, and there is help available.

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.

In the media self-harm is often linked to suicide and in rare and 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.

How do people self-harm?

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.

At times we might all turn to destructive or negative behaviours to cope with stress – such as drinking too much, taking drugs, eating fast food, starving ourselves, over exercising or risk taking. These are often seen as socially acceptable behaviours, but could also be thought of as deliberate self-harm. Sometimes self-harm is just a one-off, however for some people it can become repetitive and they can come to rely on it as a way to cope with feelings.

Who self-harms?

Self-harm is most common in young people aged 11 – 25yrs, older adults self-harm less than young people. It is hard to tell how many people self-harm as it is often very private, but 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. Self-harm is something that can affect anyone and does not depend on your gender, age, religion, ethnicity or background. If you are self-harming it is important to remember you are not alone in this and there are people who are there to listen to and support you.

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.

Myths about self-harm

There are lots of myths around about why people self-harm. You may have heard it said that people are ‘dramatic’ or being ‘attention seeking and manipulative’ – in reality self-harm is more about expression than attention, and is often very private. Young people who self-harm often feel ashamed or guilty about this and may try to hide the signs. If someone is showing signs of their self-harm, perhaps this is an indication that they want to talk about it or are in distress and need some attention and support.

Self-harm is often described in unhelpful ways such as a ‘trend’ or ‘epidemic’– this can create panic and alarm, especially for parents and teachers. It can also prevent people talking about self-harm and asking for help and can add to experiences of stigma for young people – avoiding talking about self-harm won’t make it go away!

It’s important to recognise that self-harm can be very dangerous. It is a sign that something is wrong and if people go too 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.

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

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.

Stopping self-harm is never easy, especially if it has become part of your life and helps you deal with your feelings – it may be difficult to imagine coping without it. Talking about it is an important step and getting professional help to address underlying issues may eventually mean 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 wand or quick fix, and different things will work for different people – you will need to work out what works for you.

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

Delay: ‘Ride the Wave’ – self-harm tends to come in urges. Apply the 15 minute rule and when you feel an urge to self-harm give yourself 15 minutes before you do it and in that time try to sit with your feelings and 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 find that 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 the Samaritans on 116 123 (free).

Distraction: Try to distract yourself for a while – 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, tidy your room or have a throw out.

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 or 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 an online yoga or exercise class, or kicking a ball in the garden.

Relaxation: Some people find relaxation helps the feelings to pass. You could try deep breathing or yoga exercises. Listen to a  relaxation track or to soothing music, have a bubble bath, read a book or watch a film, spend time with your pet.

Avoid social media and websites that may be triggering or make you feel worse.

In the moment you might also 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.

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.

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

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 some 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 a 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 feelings, 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!

or

Childline up to 19yrs : 0800 1111
The Samaritans: 116 123
In an emergency go to A&E or call 999

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