Supporting someone who self-harms

Two young people are working together at the kitchen table

Discovering someone you care about self-harms can leave you feeling worried, confused and a bit useless, but there are things you can do to help. The Mix guides you through it.

Someone I know self-harms – what can I do to help them?

Being told that a friend or a relative self-harms can be very scary, but getting support and understanding from you can give them the space to start dealing with the issues behind their self-harm. You might not know how you can help. If you can, you should:

  • Aim to be a good listener – let the other person to speak without interruption or judgement. For them, self-harm may feel like the only way to express very strong and deep-rooted emotions. Feeling able to open up to you this can be a huge breakthrough for them, so tread carefully.
  • Read up on the subject – many organisations offer invaluable information and tips on techniques to break the cycle of self-harming.
  • Look after yourself – it’s hard to support someone if you feel overwhelmed or out of your depth. Set boundaries on what you can offer and getting some support for yourself is also important

Find out more about self-harm.

What shouldn’t I do if someone I know self-harms?

You might be concerned that you’re overstepping a boundary with them by involving yourself. But if they’ve opened up to you about their self-harming then it’s likely that they do want your help. However, in helping, it’s important that you:

  • Don’t panic if you’re not sure how to react to news that a loved one is self-harming – often simply being there is enough.
  • Understand that not everyone who self-harms is looking to commit suicide. Hurting yourself can be a way of dealing with pent-up emotions, such as anger or tension, and doesn’t necessarily follow the same pattern as someone who is looking to end their life.
  • Be patient with them. For some people self-harm is a habitual way of responding to painful emotions they feel unable to control. Underlying causes, such as abuse or low self-esteem, are what need to be addressed.
  • Avoid setting goals or pacts, such as: “If you promise not to hurt yourself between now and next week, you’re doing really well.” It’s impossible for someone in this situation to promise how they’re going to feel at any given time as they come to terms with their problems.

How should I feel about my friend self-harming?

It’s OK to feel upset if someone close to you tells you they’ve been harming themselves. If you feel unable to cope with the situation, it’s important to tell them you need extra help. And it’s OK to let them know that you feel upset they are hurting because you care about them.

Knowing that someone you care about self-harms can be difficult to bear and will bring out the urge to protect them. So when that person is hurting themselves it can stir up complicated emotions. It can even make you feel angry towards them.

As with all self-destructive behaviours, you may want to scream “Just stop it!” at the person. Try to remember that they’re not to blame for the way they’re feeling, and that the issue is more complicated than that.

You might still feel confused and upset as to why they self-harm. But if you can allow them the space to be open about how you feel and why you are self-harming, it can help them understand that the support they need is there.

Learn more about resolving conflicts with friends.

Encouraging someone to get help for self-harm

Take the initiative and find out about mental health and other support services in the area. It may also help if you support a loved one to make an appointment and offer to accompany them. As with all mental health issues, a neutral observer can prove easier to talk to than someone close, especially if there are underlying trust issues that make it difficult to open up.

“It’s important to go at the other person’s pace and give them a chance to set their own goals and find what works for them,” says Tessa Gregson from young people’s mental health service, 42nd Street.

Who can my friend talk to about self-harm?

Very often, self-harm remains a secret which can add to the problem and make asking for help harder. Someone who is self-harming might feel very alone and worry about being labelled as attention-seeking, mad, or a freak. If someone has opened up to you about self-harming, it can be helpful to reassure them that they’re not the only one and that there are sources of help and support available. Try to get support from:

  • A family member or trusted friend
  • A professional, such as a youth worker, teacher, counsellor, nurse, or doctor (GP)
  • A moderated online forum with a sense of community and understanding

I’m worried that my friend is suicidal, what can I do?

It’s important that you put aside your own feelings and encourage your friend to seek medical attention if they’ve seriously hurt themselves or if you’re worried that they might attempt suicide. If they’ve told you they don’t know whether they want to live, try to encourage them to be honest about this with medical staff. This will help mental health professionals decide on the right treatment and support for them.

Of course, you can’t make them do anything they don’t want to. If they’re comfortably able to tell you, try to find out what kind of help they would like, such as someone to talk to or advice on looking after their injuries.

If you’re really worried, you can talk about it without going into detail about the self-harm or you can call a helpline anonymously, such as Samaritans. If you’re concerned that their self-harm is getting worse or you’re worried about your own safety, it’s good to help them get the right level of help where you can.

Read our guide on how to cope with suicidal thoughts.

Next Steps

  • selfharmUK provides information and advice about self harm. You can ask a question to their expert panel or share your story.
  • Our Crisis Messenger provides free, 24/7 crisis support across the UK. If you’re aged 25 or under, you can text THEMIX to 85258
  • RecoverYourLife.com is an online community where you can get peer support for self-harm and other mental health problems.
  • Papyrus supports young people who are feeling suicidal - you can call, email or text them. Call on 0800 068 41 41.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

By Holly Turner

Updated on 08-Jan-2021

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