What is self-harm and why does it happen?
Why do people self harm and who can they turn to for support?
Written by spunout
Fact checked by experts and reviewed by young people.
Self-harm is a very personal thing, so it is important to recognise that the definition of self-harm can vary a lot from person to person. Self-harm is often described as someone deliberately hurting or injuring themselves and is often considered to be a way of ‘releasing’ or ‘managing’ difficult feelings, painful memories, or overwhelming experiences. Some also associate it with feelings of control or as a way of feeling something when they’re numb. Self-harm is complicated, and there are many different reasons that people have for self-harming. These reasons may not be easy to understand but keep in mind that nobody ‘wants’ to self-harm. When a person is self-harming, it’s a sign that they’re in distress and they deserve care and support.
You might not know why you or someone else self-harms at first, but that’s okay. Learning more about self-harm and working with a mental health professional like a counsellor who can help you figure that out. With the right help and support, people can and do recover from self-harm.
How do I know if I’m self-harming?
There are lots of different forms of self-harm. Some people may self-harm often and find it difficult to stop, while others might hurt themselves a couple of times and won’t do it again. Some people use the same form of self-harm all the time, while others hurt themselves in different ways at different times. Self-harm isn’t always obvious and can include things you might not think of as self-harm. This means that sometimes, people can engage in self-harm without knowing it.
If you are worried that some of your behaviours might be considered self-harm, reach out to a friend, family member or healthcare professional for support. Self-harm affects people of all ages from all generations and all genders. However, many people who self-harm start self-harming in their early teenage years.
Self-harm as a coping mechanism
People use self-harm as a coping mechanism. A coping mechanism is something your mind does to help manage stress. It can be really difficult to stop using a coping mechanism if you don’t have an alternative to replace it with. This is why it can be challenging to resist urges to self-harm, even when you want to. Self-harm may provide you with relief in the moment, but all forms of self-harm come with risks and can cause other problems in your life in the long term. Understanding self-harm as a coping mechanism can help you find ways of dealing with self-harm
You deserve to live a life free from self-harm, but you also don’t need to feel guilty for self-harming. The coping strategies you reach for to deal with stress, fear, and trauma do not make you a better or worse person, they simply make you human. With the right support, you can develop new, less risky coping mechanisms that can replace self-harm.
Why do people self-harm?
There are many factors that can play a role in self-harm. People engage in self-harm for a range of reasons, and these reasons often overlap. While everyone’s circumstances are unique, intense emotion and distress are at the core of self-harm.
Here are some more reasons why a person might self-harm:
- Some people find it easier to cope with physical pain rather than emotional pain
- Some people find that self-harming relieves anxiety and tension and helps calm them down when they are distressed
- Some people find physical injuries are often easier to cope with than invisible emotional pain
- Some people use self-harm as a way of expressing how they’re feeling when they can’t express themselves in other ways, like by crying
- Some people use self-harm to communicate their distress to themselves or others when they don’t have the right words
- Some people find that physical pain takes their mind away from emotional pain
- Some people self-harm in response to past trauma, such as sexual assault, rape or abuse
- When someone feels numb or disassociated (disconnected from themselves), they might turn to physical pain as a way to feel something.
- To deal with anger – Some people are very uncomfortable expressing anger outwardly.
- So they turn this anger on themselves and self-harm instead
- Some people self-harm because they feel worthless or because they believe they should be punished
- Some people self-harm because they feel like they don’t have control over their lives and they are trying to feel more in control
- Some people self-harm when they are experiencing a lot of change in their life
- Some people self-harm to relieve anxiety and tension and to calm down
If someone is self-harming does that mean they are suicidal?
There can be a link between suicidal thoughts and self-harm, but most people who hurt themselves are not actively suicidal. Some people describe self-harm as a way of staying alive and managing severe emotional distress. There are a number of common myths and misunderstandings about self-harm, and challenging these myths can help support people who are affected by self-harm.
Getting help for self-harm
If your safety or the safety of someone you know is at risk due to self-harm, you should immediately call an ambulance on 999 (for Ireland and the UK) or 112 (works in Ireland and across the EU). You could also contact your local doctor or go to the A&E department of the nearest hospital. You can google the location of your nearest hospital. With the right care and support, recovery from self-harm is possible. If you self-harm, it’s important that you seek help and support. It can feel like nobody understands what you’re going through or that you are alone, but remember there is help available. The best place to start might be visiting your GP to talk about your mental health, and they can refer you to a service.
You can also attend a service like Pieta, which provides free support to anyone who self-harms or is suicidal. They have centres all around the country and work specifically with people who self-harm so they will understand whatever you tell them.
The most important thing to do is tell someone you trust about the self-harm and how you are feeling, whether that’s a family member, friend, teacher, college counsellor or doctor.
Here are some articles you may find helpful if you would like more support for self-harm
How to deal with urges to self-harm
How to care for self-harm wounds
Living with your self-harm scars
What happens when you attend A&E for self-harm
Here are some articles you may find helpful if someone you know is self-harming.