Self-harm is when somebody intentionally damages or injures their body. It's usually a way of coping with or expressing overwhelming emotional distress. There are many different ways people can intentionally harm themselves, such as:
- cutting or burning their skin
- punching or hitting themselves
- poisoning themselves with tablets or toxic chemicals
- misusing alcohol or drugs
- deliberately starving themselves (anorexia nervosa) or binge eating (bulimia nervosa)
- excessively exercising.
People often try to keep self-harm a secret because of shame or fear of discovery. For example, if they're cutting themselves, they may cover up their skin and avoid discussing the problem.
Self-harm is often a way of coping with painful and difficult feelings and can help you to feel in control. Someone may harm themselves because they feel overwhelmed or depressed. They could be being bullied, be experiencing family problems or have experienced abuse and don't know how else to deal with what is happening in their lives.
Sometimes when people self-harm, they feel on some level that they intend to die. But the intention is more often to punish themselves, express their distress, or relieve unbearable tension. Sometimes it's a mixture of all three. Self-harm can also be a cry for help.
If you think your child or someone you know is self-harming, look out for any of the following signs:
- unexplained cuts, bruises or cigarette burns, usually on their wrists, arms, thighs and chest
- keeping themselves fully covered at all times, even in hot weather
- signs of depression, such as low mood, tearfulness or a lack of motivation or interest in anything
- self-loathing and expressing a wish to punish themselves
- not wanting to go on and wishing to end it all
- becoming very withdrawn and not speaking to others
- changes in eating habits or being secretive about eating, and any unusual weight loss or weight gain
- signs of low self-esteem, such as blaming themselves for any problems or thinking they're not good enough for something
- signs they have been pulling out their hair
- signs of alcohol or drugs misuse.
People who self-harm can seriously hurt themselves, so it's important that they speak to a GP about the underlying issue and request treatment or therapy that could help them.
Harming yourself or considering to harm yourself in any way is a sign that something is wrong. It's often a close family and friend who will notice when somebody is self-harming, and it is important that they approach the subject with care and understanding.
If you think you are going to hurt yourself it is extremely important that you tell someone straight away and get help to keep safe. Talking to an adult you trust can help you understand the choices you have and help you find a solution. If the person you first speak to does not help or does not believe you then speak to someone else.
If you or your child is self-harming, you should see your GP for help. They will suggest how to access to the help that you need. Your GP may refer you to healthcare professionals at your local CAMHS team for further assessment. This assessment will result in your care team working out a treatment plan with you to help with your distress.
Treatment for people who self-harm usually involve seeing a therapist to discuss your thoughts and feelings, and how these affect your behaviour and wellbeing. This may be in a group or 1:1 setting. They can also teach you coping strategies to help prevent further episodes of self-harm.
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There are lots of organisations that offer support and advice for people who self-harm, as well as their friends and families. These include:
- Young Minds - advice and support for young people and parents
- Samaritans - advice and support
Call 116 123 (open 24 hours a day)
- NHS website
- Mind – advice and information about self harm from the mental health charity
Call 0300 123 3393 or text 86463 (9am to 6pm on weekdays)
- Harmless - charity providing self-harm support
- National Self Harm Network forum