Self-harm - guidance for professionals

About 1 in 10 young people will self-harm at some point, but it can happen at any age.


Self-harm happens when someone hurts or harms him or herself. They may:

  • Take too many tablets;
  • Cut themselves,
  • Burn their body
  • Bang their head
  • Throw their body against something hard
  • Punch themselves
  • Stick things in their body
  • Swallow inappropriate things

What makes people self-harm?

It usually happens in a state of high emotion and inner turmoil. This may be caused by abuse; feeling depressed; feeling bad about themselves or relationship problems.They may do it because they feel that people don't listen to them; hopelessness; isolation, feeling alone, out of control or powerless. People whom self-harm are more likely to have been abused in childhood.

Self-harming can help young people to feel in control and less tense. So, it can be a 'quick fix' for feeling bad.Some people self harm only once or twice, but others do it regularly - it can become almost an addiction.  

What help is there?

  • Talking can help young people to feel less alone, and to see their 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 they are going through can help them to feel less alone with their problems.
  • People with the similar problems can provide support and practical advice - and, believe it or not, sharing your problems in a group does help. Others in the group will almost certainly have had similar experiences.
  • Self-harm is often the result of a crisis in a close relationship. If this is the case, help with solving the difficulties in the relationship will be needed.
  • Talking to a Professional; For people who use self harm to cope with other problems, one to one treatments can help.

All these treatments help. Some evidence suggests that problem-solving therapy may be best. If you are concerned that a young person you know may be self-harming encourage them to seek help through one of the channels above or contact one of the help-lines listed below.

What if they 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.

What can I do if I know someone who self-harms?

  • 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 - this is 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.


  • 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 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.

See our links page for further information.