What is self-harm?

Simply put, self-harm is where a person intentionally causes harm to their own body, often by cutting or hitting parts of your body. It’s often temporary relief for difficult feelings that a person is otherwise struggling to express - but it can have serious consequences if a person self-harms over a long period of time.

The Mix takes a closer look at what self-harm is, and what it isn't.

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Jump to section:

  1. Why do people self-harm?
  2. Types of self-harm
  3. The relationship between self-harm and suicide
  4. Self-harm and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)
  5. Treatment and support for self-harm
  6. A friend has told me that they’re self-harming, what can I do?

Why do people self-harm?

People self-harm for many reasons – it’s usually a very private issue and motivations and methods will differ from one person to another, for example a person might self harm:

  • As a way of coping with painful and difficult feelings and distress
  • Because they feel overwhelmed and don’t know how else to deal with things
  • To feel “in control” of their lives temporarily

Some forms of self-harm carry a serious risk, but this doesn’t mean someone who self-harms is always intending to cause themselves serious injury.

Rates of self-harm in the UK have increased over the past decade and are amongst the highest in Europe. The Truth Hurts report found that rates of self-harm are highest among young people, with around 25,000 11-25 year-olds admitted to hospital each year after self-harming.

 

Types of self-harm

While self-cutting is the most common form of self-harm, perhaps affecting as many as one in 15 young people, it is not the only one. Truth Hurts describes self-harm as “a wide range of things that people do to themselves in a deliberate and usually hidden way, which are damaging”.

Self-injury

Self-harm can take many different forms. Cutting is the most common form of self-injury that you’ve likely heard mentioned before, but other forms of self-injury can include:

  • Burning with hot objects eg. stove
  • Scalding with hot water
  • Stabbing (often using small implements rather than a knife)
  • Banging heads and other body parts against walls
  • Hair-pulling, usually in clumps
  • Biting body parts
  • Breaking bones
  • Jumping from heights or in front of vehicles
  • Swallowing or inserting objects

How harsh people are with these methods can vary from person to person. For example, a person who cuts might only do small scratches, and over time the cuts might get deeper and run the risk of permanent scarring.

Self-poisoning

Self-poisoning is the term used for overdosing with a medicine or medicines or swallowing a poisonous substance. It may also be that someone self-harms by inhaling/sniffing harmful substances.

The majority of people who attend Accident & Emergency (A&E) because of self-poisoning have taken over-the-counter medication. Others may overdose on medicines that have been prescribed by their doctor, such as antidepressants. A small number of people will take a large amount of an illegal drug or poison themselves with another substance, such as bleach.

The relationship between self-harm and suicide

Although people who self-harm are not usually trying to take their own lives, they could be at a higher risk of killing themselves, whether it’s intentional or not. Research suggests that the intention to commit suicide is present in up to 15% of those who self-harm.

Although it’s wrong to presume that people who self-harm are trying to kill themselves, a small proportion of people who self-harm go on to take their life within two years.

“We would be more concerned about suicidal feelings if the person is saying ‘I just don’t want to live’ and there is a real intention to end their life,” says Frances McCann, a senior mental health practitioner. “There’s a big difference between someone saying they self-harm when they feel angry and a young person saying that they can’t go on anymore and want to end everything.”

People who are suicidal can be more likely to avoid asking for help and may even carry out final acts, such as writing a will, or choosing a violent means of self-harm that result in little chance of survival. The risk of suicide is also increased in people diagnosed with:

Self-harm and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

Self-harm is often an indicator that the person who is hurting themselves might be experiencing some mental health issues, such as Borderline Personality Disorder.

This is a condition that affects how a person thinks, feels and behaves. People with BPD can have mood swings and act impulsively in a way that could be damaging to them. Just because someone self-harms it doesn’t mean that they have BPD – this is just one of the symptoms that may lead to a diagnosis of BPD, which is a very complex condition.

Treatment and support for self-harm

If you’ve been self-harming and you want to stop, there is plenty of help out there to enable you to do just that. It’s important that you go at a pace that you’re comfortable with. Some things you could try to stop self-harming are:

Talking to a friend or family member about self-harm

Try telling someone that you trust about your self-harming, so that they know you want help and so they can support you in case you relapse. If they felt comfortable and if you wanted them to, they could even attend appointments with you whilst you’re getting help from healthcare professionals.

Making an appointment with a GP for self-harm

If you feel uncomfortable talking to someone you know, then you might feel more comfortable talking to someone impartial, such as your GP. They’ll be able to:

Support groups for self-harm

It can really help to simply talk to other people who also self-harm; it can help you realise that you’re not alone, and that there’s no need to feel shame or embarrassment about self-harm. Try these links to see if there are peer-led support groups in your area:

Self-Injury Support
Mind Infoline

A friend has told me that they’re self-harming, what can I do?

If someone you care about has told you that they’re self-harming, this can be quite shocking and scary. It’s important to withhold judgement, and focus on keeping them safe – particularly if they’ve expressed suicidal thoughts. The best thing you can do is reassure them that you’ll be there for them, and to encourage them to seek professional support when they feel ready.

Read our tips for helping someone who is self-harming

Next Steps

  • 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
  • Under 19? You can get confidential help with self-harm from ChildLine – either over the phone or through an online chat.
  • Papyrus supports young people who are feeling suicidal - you can call, email or text them. Call on 0800 068 41 41.
  • The Charlie Waller Memorial Trust helps young people learn more about depression and the importance of looking after your mental health.
  • 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.

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By Holly Turner

Updated on 13-Jan-2021

Photo by Antonio Guillem

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