What is Self Harm?

Self harm is when someone intentionally damages or injures their body; it is a way of dealing with, and expressing very deep distress. It can also be to punish themselves or to relieve unbearable tension. It can in some cases be a tool for survival as they feel on some level that they intend to die so they self harm to prevent themselves from suicide.

Most people who self harm are not trying to die by suicide, psychiatrists believe that people who self harm generally use it as a survival mechanism, as a way to express emotion they cannot speak about and to keep suicidal impulses at bay.

What are the Causes of Self Harm?

In many cases people feel unnoticed, unloved and numb. They decide that pain is a better alternative to their emptiness.

There can be many reasons that they take the step to self harm, it can be:

  • Self hate

  • Low self esteem

  • Overwhelming emotions

  • Loneliness

  • Tension or distress

  • A means of escape from their life

  • Punishment

  • Abuse or another trauma from their childhood

  • Mental illness such as depression or anxiety

The Symptoms

Self Harm can be done by different forms such as:

  • Cutting

  • Overdose

  • Scratching

  • Pulling hair out, including eye lashes

  • Burning

  • Banging or punching themselves

  • Swallowing dangerous objects

  • Inserting objects into themselves

  • Alcohol and drug abuse

All of these can in some cases end in death or disability.

In Scotland there are over 7000 people treated in hospital each year for non fatal self harm. However there are many more that don't go to the hospital to get treatment from a medical service.

The typical age that people self harm is between 16 and 25 years old, however it can be any age and it affects both men and women. Men usually self harm when they find they lose power of their own life such as if they end up in prison, whereas many young women self harm due to emotional problems. Women are also three times more likely to self harm when they feel angry or upset.

Self harm mostly happens at home and can be a sign of low self esteem and powerlessness and loss of control in their lives. Self harm in not in any way attention seeking as it's done very privately and it's a last resort for many young people.

It is commonly thought that everyone that self harms must have a mental illness but in fact they don't but it is very common amongst people who have depression, personality disorders, eating disorders and alcohol and drug dependency.

Self Help

If you want to make a good recovery self help is very important as no one else can do it except you. You have to learn about yourself and believe in yourself. A good place to start in your self help journey would be:

  • Reading leaflets/self help books

  • Learn from people that have already recovered from self harming

  • Join a local support group, face to face talking is great therapy, talk about your feelings to other people

  • Websites online can be very helpful and they often have helpline where you can call for information and advice. Some also have chat rooms which again can be very useful (avoid chat rooms that are unmonitored)

  • Distraction is key to fight the urge to self harm so you have to learn to take your mind of things, you could listen to music, watch a non violent film, do some housework, shopping, walking or cooking.

  • Relaxation is also very important to help you in your recovery you can try things such as yoga, body balance or meditation.

  • Avoid alcohol and drugs as these can make you act impulsively which can increase the risk of self harm.

The most important thing is to learn to recognise the thoughts and feelings that lead you to self harm and interrupt them; this will help break the cycle.


To get professional treatment you have to go to your GP and they will ask you some questions to see if you have an underlying mental health illness such as depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder or if you self harm follow a particular behaviour such as an eating disorder.  The results will determine the best treatment and support you need. Your GP will then refer you to the appropriate specialist for treatment. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is often recommended for people who self harm. Your therapist will talk to you about your thoughts and feelings and how they affect your behaviour and wellbeing. Evidence suggests that CBT works very well with people who self harm.

Seeking Help for Your Injury

Some physical injuries may need treatment by either going to an A&E department or a walk in centre such as:

  • minor burns

  • scalds

  • infected wounds

  • bruising

In these cases you may be referred for further assessments by the local community nursing service.

In emergencies you may even need to call 999 such as

  • An overdose

  • Unbearable pain

  • Losing a lot of blood from a cut or wound

  • Shock after a bad cut

If you have arrived at the hospital after a 999 call you will be assessed by a psychiatric nurse before you leave the hospital.

NHS Choices - Self Harm