Why do people self-harm?

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, writer and mental health campaigner Natasha Devon guest edited some of our favourite content. Find out more about self-harm, featuring Natasha's expert commentary.

Natasha Devon says:

Self-harm is defined as ‘an act which we know does us physical or psychological damage but gives us temporary respite from difficult feelings’. In that context, lots of the things people do to ‘take the edge off’ – eating sugary foods, drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco – are, technically, self-harm.

We have a tendency to think of people who self-harm as ‘alien’ and ‘other’ but, at its heart, it’s just a coping strategy and, whether we realise it or not, we all have those. Like anything, coping strategies can be positive or negative and it depends just as much on how and why we do the things as what we’re doing. As a general rule, physical activity, relaxation (mindfulness, meditation) and creativity (music, art, writing, drama, dance) are all a great way to express difficult emotions and rid yourself of stress.

If you’re trying to support a person who is self-harming, remember that you’re aim isn’t just to make them stop. Ideally, they need to work out why they’re doing it and replace self-harming with a healthier coping activity, like the ones described above.

Self-harm can affect anyone

There’s no such thing as a typical person who self-harms. It can affect anyone of any age, background or race, regardless of whether they are an extrovert or an introvert. In fact, a 2014 survey of young people showed that one in three 18-21 year-olds say they’ve self-harmed.

Some young people self-harm on a regular basis, while others only do it once or twice their whole lifetimes. For some, it’s part of coping with a specific problem and they stop once the problem is resolved. Others self-harm for years whenever certain kinds of pressures and problems arise.

Are some people more likely to self-harm than others?

There are some groups of people who are more at risk of self-harming than others, including:

  • Girls and young women (although more boys are self-harming than ever before)
  • Young people aged between 15 and 25 years old
  • People who live in residential care or secure institutions
  • Gay, bisexual and transgender people
  • Asian women
  • People who are dependent on alcohol or drugs
  • People with learning disabilities
  • Prisoners

Drinking a lot of alcohol can significantly increase the risk of self-harm in young people who are already feeling stressed or depressed.

What causes self-harm?

Self-harming doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a serious mental illness – it may just be that you’re feeling alone, isolated, stressed, frustrated, or angry about issues out of your control. Such issues might include one or more of the following:

Why do people self-harm?

Some people do it because they don’t know how else to cope with pressures from family, school and friends. Extreme feelings such as fear, anger, guilt, shame, helplessness, self-hatred, unhappiness, depression or despair can build up over time. When these feelings become unbearable, self-harm can be a way of dealing with them.

Reasons young people have given for their self-harm include:

  • When the level of emotional pressure becomes too high it acts as a safety valve – a way of relieving the tension
  • Cutting makes the blood take away the bad feelings
  • Pain can make you feel more alive when feeling numb or dead inside
  • Punishing yourself in response to feelings of shame or guilt
  • When it’s too difficult to talk to anyone, it’s a form of communication about unhappiness and a way of acknowledging the need for help
  • Self-harm gives a sense of control that’s missing elsewhere in life
  • Some people self-harm with the intention of ending their life or they may be unsure about whether they want to survive, for example, taking an overdose and leaving it to fate to decide the outcome.

If you, or someone you know, need help with their self-harm, check out the links in the next step box below.

Next Steps

  • 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.



By Julia Pearlman

Updated on 29-Sep-2015

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