Self-harm - guidance for young people

Help is available for people affected by self-harm.


Self-harm may mean:

  • Taking too many tablets
  • Cutting yourself 
  • Burning yourself
  • Deliberately banging your head or any part of your body
  • Punching yourself
  • Sticking objects in your body
  • Swallowing harmful things

This may be caused by abuse, depression, feeling bad about yourself or relationship problems. You may do it because you feel that people don't listen to you, you feel hopeless, alone or powerless.

What help is there?

The first step is to talk to someone. Talking can help you to feel less alone, or to see your problems more clearly. Many young people find it helpful just to talk anonymously to someone else about what is happening to them. Knowing that someone else knows what you are going through can help you to feel less alone with your problems. If you do not feel you can talk to a parent, friend of teacher then it's a good idea to speak to your GP. ChildLine have a free national helpline for young people, call 0800 1111.

What if I don't get help?

1 in 3 people who self-harm will do it again within a year. People who self-harm are 50 times more likely to kill themselves. The risk increases with age and is much greater for men. Cutting can cause scarring, numbness or paralysis.

How can I help myself?

When you want to harm yourself:

  • If you can ride out how you feel without self-harm, the feelings will usually go after a few hours.
  • You can talk to someone, distract yourself by going out, sing or listen to music, or do anything (harmless) that interests you.
  • Try to relax and focus your mind on something pleasant.
  • Find another way to express your feelings such as squeezing ice cubes (make them with red juice to mimic blood if that helps), or draw red lines on your skin.
  • Give yourself some 'harmless pain' - eat a hot chilli, or have a cold shower.
  • Focus on good things in your life.
  • Write a diary or a letter, to explain what is happening to you - no one else needs to see it.

When the urge has gone:

  • Think about the times that you have self-harmed and what (if anything) has helped.
  • Go back in your mind to the last time when you did not want to self-harm, and move forward in your memory from there. Where were you, who were you with, and what you were feeling? Try to work out why you began feeling like you did. Did your self-harm give you a sense of escape, or relief, or control? Try to work out something to do that might give you the same result, but that doesn't damage you (i.e. the examples given above). Make a recording by talking about your good points and why you don't want to self-harm.
  • When you feel bad, play this back to remind you of the parts of you that are worthwhile.
  • Make a 'crisis plan' of what to do when you feel bad.

What if I don't want to stop?

OK, but reduce the damage. If you cut, use clean blades. Find ways of hurting yourself that doesn't damage your body (i.e. the examples given above).

If you can say yes to at least 3 of the questions below, it's worth trying to stop:

  • Are there at least two people who are willing to help me stop?
  • Do I have friends that I can go to if I get desperate?
  • Have I found at least two safe ways that reduce the feelings that make me self-harm?
  • Can I really say to myself that I want to stop hurting myself?
  • Can I tell myself that I will tolerate feelings that make me want to self-harm?
  • Is there a professional who will give me support and help in a crisis?

What if I harm myself and need treatment?

You have the right to be treated with courtesy and respect by the doctors and nurses in the Accident and Emergency department. Many departments have a psychiatric liaison nurse, or a social worker, who can talk with you.

Staff may want to go through a questionnaire with you as a way of judging how at risk you are.

In an emergency call 999.

Supporting someone who self-harms

If you know someone who is self-harming there are ways in which you can support them.

Things you can do:

  • Listen to them without being critical. This can be very hard if you are upset or angry. Try to focus on them rather than your feelings, even though it may be hard
  • Try to understand their feelings, and then move the conversation to other things
  • Take the mystery out of self-harm by helping them find out about self-harm on the Internet or at the library
  • Help them to think about their self-harm not as a shameful secret, but as a problem to be sorted out

Things you shouldn't do:

  • Try to be their therapist - you have enough to deal with as their friend
  • Expect them to stop overnight - it's difficult and takes time
  • Get angry as this may make them feel worse. Talk calmly about the effect it has on you - in a way that shows how much you care for them
  • Struggle with them when they are about to self-harm - it's better to walk away and to suggest they come and talk about it rather than do it
  • Make them promise not to do it again or make your involvement conditional on them stopping

Other sources of advice 

See our links page for further information.