self; harm; cutting; burning; pain; injury; intentional; suicide; attempted; parasuicide; mental; health; emotions; razor; pills; alcohol; drugs; moods; hair; cut; self-harm;
If you harm yourself, or are close to people who cut or burn themselves, it can be really tough to cope with, and hard to understand.
The reasons people harm themselves are complicated. Self-harming usually does not mean that a person wants to commit suicide or that they are looking for attention. Usually when people harm themselves, they are suffering a great deal inside.
Self-harming is when people cause themselves physical pain that alters their mood state (how they feel inside). Some people harm themselves because they feel disconnected and isolated from everybody, and hurting themselves is the only way they feel real or connected.
Many people, when they think about what self-harming involves, think about people cutting the skin on their arms or legs. But there are many behaviours that can be classed as self-harm; some are harder to spot than others.
These behaviours can include:
- cutting the skin with knives or any sharp object
- burning the skin
- hitting the body with an object or fists (like punching the wall)
- deliberately falling when doing something like extreme sports
- picking at skin
- swallowing pills or sharp objects
- pulling at hair (hair pulling can also be a habit).
Eating disorders and drug addiction are other ways that people harm themselves physically and mentally.
people start harming themselves?
Self-harming can be a way that people deal with feelings of:
- helplessness, despair and low self-esteem
- anger, loneliness, shame and guilt
- not having control over their own life – cutting or hurting themselves is one way that they can regain some control
- being 'out of it' – the only way to feel 'real' is to cause physical pain to themselves.
Some self-harm is related to severe emotional pain. When people have experienced abuse or violence, it often re-appears as emotional pain in later life. Some people have said that:
- when they hurt themselves physically, it helps take away the emotional pain, and this is the only way they can relieve this pain
- self-harm makes internal pain visible on the surface, and easier to understand
- self-harm is a way that people punish themselves for something.
People who harm themselves...
- may have difficulty expressing their feelings verbally
- may dislike themselves and their bodies
- may do it because of difficulties with relationships
- may do it because of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety or stress.
See our topic on Depression for more information.
do people keep harming themselves?
Some people say that self-harming is a form of addictive behaviour.
- Behaviours, when they become addictive, can be just as hard to give up as an addictive drug.
- When people get into a cycle of self-harming behaviour, it can become their main way of dealing with problems, and can start to have very negative impacts on their lives.
It's important to remember that self-harming is just one way of dealing with emotional pain – there are other less hurtful ways for people to express how they feel.
risks of self-harm
You may be harming yourself, and not be aware of the negative effects on your body and mind.
- By expressing yourself in this way, you may not be dealing with the underlying issues, such as depression or emotional pain.
- Self-harmers usually do it on their own, and this can be a really isolating experience for you – you may not get the support you may need to work it out.
- There is a risk that one day, without meaning to, you may go too far, and die.
- You may have to lie. If you don't feel that people would understand you, you may have to lie and cover up your cuts or burns. A lot of young people find this secrecy really difficult to maintain and stressful to deal with.
- Cuts can become infected if not looked after, and can cause permanent scars.
It is important to recognise that self-harming is not well understood in society, and is not seen as an acceptable way of coping with problems.
- This could make things more complicated for you, as you may have to lie and cover your cuts up.
- You'll also have to deal with the disapproval of other people who don't understand what you are going through. We are often judged by the way we look, and people may not understand why you have cuts or scars on your body.
can I stop self-harming?
It is very difficult to stop using self-harm without having other ways of coping to replace it. Changing any kind of behaviour is difficult, and deciding to change is a decision that only you can make for yourself.
As with any kind of addiction, you must be kind to yourself and understand that you may fall back into old patterns of behaviour briefly – but it does not mean you have to give up trying.
What is important is that you keep trying, and get the support you need to get through it.
- Take yourself away from risky situations - something as simple as removing yourself from the presence of knives and razors works for some people.
- Try and focus on something around you, rather than the pain you may be feeling. 'Grounding' yourself helps you to be more in control of your reaction to those bad feelings.
- Talking to a professional – eg. a counsellor, psychologist, psychiatrist – can be a valuable source of support - see Resources at the end of the topic.
- Make a list of supportive friends that you can talk to, who understand your situation, and call them when you feel you need to.
- Think about your alcohol and drug use. Is it too much? Are you more likely to hurt yourself if you've been drinking or using drugs?
- Try deep breathing and relaxation exercises – see our topic Stress and relaxation.
- Write in a journal – record how you feel and the reasons why you might want to harm yourself.
- You could try holding ice cubes in your hand – cold causes pain but is not dangerous to your health.
- Wear a rubber band on your wrist and snap it when you feel the need.
- Use a red pen to draw on the areas you might normally cut.
- Work it off with exercise. Jogging or riding a bike for a bit can wear you out and give you a boost of endorphins – check out our topic Exercise.
- Learn to confront others, making your feelings known. Check out our topic Assertiveness.
- Make a list of reasons why you are going to stop cutting, and set yourself some realistic goals to help you stop it.
- If you find it hard to remember strategies when you feel like self-harming, look at your hand now, and for each finger designate a strategy or person to call, then go through them in order when you need to.
- Call a crisis line if you feel that your behaviour is becoming dangerous. See our list of helpful numbers at the end of this topic.
it so hard to talk about it?
Talking to people that you are close to about what is happening to you can be really hard. A lot of young people who harm themselves worry about how their family will react and what will happen to them. Self-harming can be very confronting and painful for your friends and family to deal with.
- Be sensitive to those around you. It may seem like a normal behaviour to you, but to the people around you it may seem frightening.
- When you talk to people about it, try to pick a place that is private so that you can talk about it without pressure.
- Pick the person you feel will be the most supportive.
- Read this topic with them and talk about it as a way to open the issue up.
You are in control of how others find out about your self-harming, and what information you give them about your situation. If you treat the situation with care, you can gain support from those people around you.
I help if I know someone who harms themself?
Finding out that someone that you care about is deliberately hurting themself can be hard. Many parents, partners, brothers, sisters and friends cannot understand why someone would want to hurt themself in this way. It is hard to not take it personally, and you may want to force the person you care about to stop, because it makes you uncomfortable.
- Don't take it personally – the person is not doing it to make you feel bad or guilty. Even if it feels like that person is trying to manipulate you into feeling a certain way, it may not be the reason they hurt themselves.
- Educate yourself – find out as much information as you can, and talk to a professional about what you can do to support the person.
- Be supportive without reinforcing the behaviour – let the person know that you are there if he or she wants to talk. Make the initial approach, but don't push that person to disclose information.
- Take care of yourself – recognise that this is a difficult situation, and you need time to adjust and make sure you are taking care of your own needs as well as the person you care about.
- Be clear about what your limits are – if you feel uncomfortable with the self-harming behaviour, be clear with the young person and come to an agreement about what you can and can't cope with.
Even if the thought of that young person self-harming causes you to feel uncomfortable, try to understand what the issues behind the feelings may be, and how you can support that person to find more positive ways of coping with their pain.
When everything seems too big to handle and you can't see any way out, it can be hard to think about your future. When you feel this way, there are some things you can try and concentrate on.
- Problems that seem unsolvable will change. Life is always changing.
- You have choices about what happens to you and how you react to your surroundings.
There are people who want to hear what you have to say, and to support you to stop self-harming if that's what you want to do. Self-harming is destructive and stops you from dealing with your pain. There are better ways to deal with the way you feel, and the first step is to reach out and talk to someone and see the future you have ahead of you.
- The Second Story Youth Health Service (TSS)
- Central: 57 Hyde St, Adelaide
- South: 50a Beach Rd, Christies Beach
- North: 6 Gillingham Rd, Elizabeth
- West: 51 Bower St, Woodville
- Youth Healthline 1300 13 17 19 9am to 5pm, weekdays
- Crisis care 131611
- Mental health emergency support line (ACIS) 131465 (24 hours, every day for people over 18)
- Kids Helpline 1800 551 800
- School, College or University Counsellor
- Local Community Health Service
- General Practitioner (Doctor)
- Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) (for young people under 18 years)
- Northern Region: 8252 0133
- Eastern region: 8207 8999
- Western Region: 8341 1222
- Noarlunga Region: 8326 1234
- Marion Region: 8298 7744
- The emergency department of your local hospital.
Sinclair, J. & Green, J. 'Understanding resolution of deliberate self harm: qualitative interview study of patients' experiences'. British Medical Journal, May 2005; 330: 1112.
Solomon, Y. & Farrand, J. '"Why Don't You Do It Properly?" young women who self injure'. Journal of Adolescence, 1996; 19: 111-119.
Santa, N., Eliane, E. & Gallop, R. 'Childhood sexual and physical abuse and adult self harm and suicidal behaviour: a literature review'. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 1998; 43: 793-800.
Young people and self harm - a national inquiry
The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Youth Healthline on 1300 13 17 19 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).