Self-harm is when somebody intentionally damages or injures their body. It is a way of expressing deep emotional feelings such as low self-esteem, or a way of coping with traumatic events, such as the death of a loved one, Self-harm is an expression of personal distress, rather than an illness, although it can be linked to other mental health conditions such as depression.

The idea that self-harm is almost exclusively a problem among teenage girls is wrong, research suggests. More than ten percent were boys, and researchers say it was possible that boys simply concealed their self-harm more than girls. About one in ten young people will self-harm at some point, but it can happen at any age.

Signs of self-harm.

Types of self-harm may include:

  • cutting and/or burning the skin.
  • punching your own body.
  • poisoning yourself with tablets.
  • misusing alcohol/drugs.
  • eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, binge eating or bulimia.

People often try to keep self-harm a secret because of shame or fear of discovery. For example, they may cover up their skin and avoid discussing the problem. It may, therefore, be up to close family and friends to notice when somebody is self-harming, and to approach the subject with care, empathy and understanding. The signs may include unexplained injuries and signs of depression or low self-esteem.

Someone who is self-harming can seriously hurt himself or herself.

Why do people harm themselves?

A person who self-harms is likely to have gone through very difficult, painful experiences as a child or young adult. At the time, they probably had no one they could confide in, so did not receive the support and the emotional outlet they needed to deal with it. The experience might have involved physical violence, emotional abuse, or sexual abuse.

They might have been neglected, separated from someone they loved, been bullied, harassed, assaulted, isolated, put under intolerable pressure, made homeless, sent into care, or into hospital.

Recent research focusing on young people suggests that ten percent of fifteen to sixteen year olds have self-harmed, usually by cutting themselves, and that girls are far more likely to self-harm than boys. The most common reason is ‘to find relief from a terrible situation’. Young people are often under great pressure within their families, from school and among their peers. Many young people report having friends who they know to also self-harm.

Researchers suggests that young people who self-harm are much more likely to have low self-esteem, to be depressed and anxious. They seem to be facing more problems in life, but may be less good at coping with them. They may retreat into themselves, feeling angry, blaming themselves, tending to drink and smoke too much and to use more recreational drugs. They confide in fewer friends, and tend not to talk to their parents or other adults.

Self-harm involves all of us on some level. We may all punish, distract or numb ourselves as a way of dealing with difficult feelings or situations.

Professional treatment.

May include the help and support of a GP and/or a psychotherapist. A therapist can help develop new coping techniques and strategies to stop self-harming, while also helping get to the root of why people hurt or injure themselves.

Self-harming can also occur at any age.