Why do people self-harm?

A young person wearing a black coat is standing on the street looking at their phone and googling: "why do people self harm?"

T/W This article includes references to self-harm. If you are struggling with this, or if someone you know is, contact our Crisis Messenger 24 hours a day or speak to our team, who are there to support you with whatever you’re going through.

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 why people self-harm, featuring Natasha’s expert commentary.

What is self-harm? 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 your 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.

Read more about how to help someone who self harms here.

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.
  • People with mental health problems such as borderline personality disorder.
  • Asian women.
  • People who are dependent on alcohol or drugs.
  • People with learning disabilities.
  • People with eating disorders.
  • People in prison.

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 a person has a serious mental illness – the reasons why people self-harm are varied and include feeling alone, isolated, stressed, frustrated, or angry about issues out of their control. Such issues might include one or more of the following:

Why some people self-harm

Some people do it because they don’t know how else to cope with pressures from whatever’s going on at school, or with their friends and family. 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, so too can the urge to self-harm.

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

  • When the level of emotional pain becomes too high, it acts as a safety valve where physical pain brings temporary relief.
  • 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 want to stop self-harming, or help someone you know, you might find these links useful:

Next Steps



By Julia Pearlman

Updated on 12-Apr-2023

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