Self-harm is a way of coping with emotional distress, it is not an illness.

It is a behavior that is most common in adolescent and young adulthood. It is something that can be misunderstood which can stop children and young people from coming forward for help. It can be a way for some people
to cope with overwhelming and distressing thoughts or feelings.

Self-harm is usually the result of another mental issue, such as anxiety or depression, so it is important to understand what underlying issues the young person is dealing with first. Self-harm is not a suicide attempt or a cry for attention.

Some of the most common reasons for selfharming are

  • Distraction from emotional distress
  • Attempting to regain control
  • Expressing overwhelming emotions
  • To punish themselves
  • To identify with a particular social group
  • Low self esteem
  • Expressing suicidal feelings

School work, exam stress, bulling and peer pressure are common sources of stress for young people any of which might make self-harm a likely coping strategy. In addition, things like discrimination for sexual orientation or gender identity can also play a role.

Examples of self-harming behaviours

  • Cutting
  • Burning
  • Picking at skin or reopening old wounds
  • Bone breaking
  • Excessive exercising
  • Eating/drinking harmful substances
  • Alcohol and drug misuse

Self-harm can lead to suicidal thoughts, so it is important to talk to someone who is suffering and find them help. It is estimated that at least half the people who take their own life had previously self-harmed. (Mental Heath Foundation. The Truth About Self Harm (booklet))

Possible warning signs to look for

  • Keeping fully covered up, even in hot temperatures.
  • Unexplained injuries
  • Low self esteem and isolation
  • Mood swings
  • Relationship/friendship issues
  • Being bullied


It is important not to tell someone to stop self-harming as this can make things worse. Self-harm is a coping strategy, so the underlying issue needs to be tackled in order for the need to self-harm to ease. Therefore, instead of telling someone to stop, it is better to encourage them to use a less harmful coping method such as:

  • Snapping rubber bands around wrists
  • Pinching skin instead of cutting
  • Exercising
  • Squeezing ice
  • Screaming
  • Kicking or punching something soft
  • Drawing on the body with red markers


If a young person is self-harming, they should talk to something they trust and work towards asking a professional for advice. A great way of finding local professionals who can help is by using Hub of Hope.

More self-help resources can be found on our mental health support page.

Useful websites

  • Life signs First aid for self-injury and self-harm
  • Young Minds Charity dedicated to improving the mental health of children and young people
  • Self Harm UK National project for young people affected by self-harm. Provides a safe space to talk and ask questions.
  • The Mix Support for under 25s

Visit our Resources and Helplines page for more support – Further Resources & Helplines – Be Free YC