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A guide for young people Self-harm

Self-harm can be difficult to talk about but it’s a common problem and you can beat it. Find out what self-harm means and what to do if you think you’re affected by it.

If you need help right now

If you feel like you are about to self-harm now, there are things you can do to help keep your mind off it. Watch the video about the TIPP technique – a simple technique you can use to help you in the moment.

Try the TIPP technique

If you are in an emergency or worried for your life you should call 999.

What is self-harm?

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Self-harm is when you intentionally cause harm to yourself as a way of dealing with difficult feelings, traumatic experiences or memories, neglect, or situations that you find overwhelming. People sometimes self-harm when life feels hard to cope with.

Self-harm can look different for different people. You might find yourself doing things which are harmful, but not think of them as ‘self-harm’. But that doesn’t make your experience any less valid.

Self-harm can look like:

  • cutting yourself
  • using drugs or alcohol to cope with your problems
  • not eating, over-eating, or forcing yourself to throw up
  • spending all your time on addictive behaviours like gaming, social media or gambling
  • over-exercising and/or exercising when you are injured
  • biting, hitting or burning yourself
  • hitting walls
  • getting into situations on purpose where you risk getting hurt, including fights or risky sexual behaviour

Often self-harming only brings temporary relief. You might also have negative feelings after self-harming, such as guilt, shame or fear. When difficult feelings start to build up again, you might feel like you have to harm again. It can be really hard to break out of this cycle. Self-harming can become a habit and it can be upsetting to think that this is your only way to cope. But there are things you can do to stop self-harming and get better. And with support, you can learn other ways of coping when things feel too much.

People self-harm for many different reasons. Some people find it hard to explain why they do it, but often it’s a way for people to let out feelings that are hard to explain or control.
Lucas, 19

Why do I self-harm?

A boy wearing glasses and a black hoodie stands in a park looking worried. He is rubbing the back of his neck with one hand.

There are many reasons why you might self-harm and these reasons will be different for everyone. You might be dealing with lots of intense thoughts and feelings and hurting yourself might feel like the only way to let those feelings out. Or you might feel numb and want to hurt yourself so that you can feel something.

For some people, self-harm feels like a way to show the feelings they have inside on the outside. It can be a way of:

  • expressing a feeling that you find hard to say
  • reducing overwhelming emotional feelings or thoughts
  • gaining a sense of control
  • punishing yourself for feelings or experiences
  • expressing suicidal feelings or thoughts

People often start self-harming due to something stressful or upsetting that is going on in their life that is difficult to deal with . This could be something like:

These are just examples. Whatever the reason you started self-harming, your feelings matter and you can get through this.

You may not always know the reason why you are self-harming. If you’re unsure why, or don’t understand the reasons, you are not alone and you can still get help.

Pressures from society and the people around you

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Artwork credit: @the_mini_ADHD_coach

An illustration of a face with eyes closed. Text reads: 'It's ok to feel overwhelmed.'

Things can happen in life that can leave us feeling overwhelmed, angry and hurt. Instead of finding ways to express those feelings to the world, we might start to take this pain and anger out on ourselves.

We might self-harm because we have learnt that in order to be accepted or loved we have to be ‘perfect’. When we don’t live up to this ‘perfect’ image we can feel like a ‘failure’. The constant guilt, or worry about disappointing people, can make us feel like we need to punish ourselves for not being ‘good enough’. If this resonates with you, you’re not alone. With the right support, you can stop feeling this way, and learn to love yourself for who you are.

Sometimes people make comments about self-harm being attention-seeking. Comments like this can be hurtful and make you feel judged, alone or misunderstood. Those who self-harm actually often keep this private. However, if you do self-harm as a way of bringing attention to yourself, remember that there is nothing wrong with wanting people to notice you more and wanting to have your feelings taken seriously. You deserve to feel loved by those around you and you deserve support.

Who self-harms?

People of all ages and backgrounds self-harm. It can affect anyone. We don’t know why some people self-harm while others don’t. However, we do know that certain difficult experiences can make people more likely to self-harm. And some communities are more likely to go through these difficult experiences. For example, members of the LGBTQIA+ community may experience stigma and discrimination against their sexual orientation or gender identity. And young people of colour may experience discrimination against their race. These types of pressures may make people more likely to self-harm.

If you are self-harming because you are being treated badly, remember that you matter. You are worthy of respect and love exactly the way you are, and you deserve help.

Six arms of different skin tones. On each arm reads the word 'worthy'.

Artwork credit: @ohhappydani

An illustration of six arms all of different skin tones. On each arm reads the word 'worthy'.

Overall, the most important thing which I hope everyone knows is you don't have to go through this alone.
Lucas, 19
I was only 14 when I started to self-harm. I was never intending to hurt myself. I was doing it for the sense of relief it provided. I felt like the only way I could function and leave my room was if I had that release.

How can I stop self-harming?

A girl sitting in the park wearing headphones. She is looking down at her phone and listening to music.

Ways to keep yourself safe now

It’s really important to keep yourself as safe as possible and reduce your risk of serious self-injury. Even though you want to stop self-harming, you might not feel able to stop straight away. Sometimes it can take time to find new ways to cope, and that’s normal.

If you are unable to stop self-harming right now, make sure you are at least doing it as safely as possible. This means using sterile equipment, keeping your wounds clean, and avoiding mixing drugs and alcohol with other forms of self-harm. You can also call Samaritans at any time - whether you’re thinking about self-harm or have already harmed yourself.

If you are in an emergency or worried for your life you should call 999 or go to A&E.

Things you can do to help

There are also lots of things you can do in the moment to help you not self-harm.

When you feel the urge to self-harm building, you could try to:

  • go for a walk or do some gentle exercise
  • distract yourself by focusing on your breathing
  • text a friend and let them know you need them to help you take your mind off things
  • play music and sing or dance along
  • hold an ice cube
  • write down your thoughts
  • hit a cushion or pillow
  • tear up a magazine or newspaper
  • make a self-soothe box
  • go to a public place like a park or a cafe

The TIPP technique

You might find the TIPP technique helps to stop your urge to self-harm.

This video explains how to use the TIPP technique to help you feel calmer.

  1. T - Temperature

    Try changing your body temperature by splashing your face with water or holding an ice cube.
  2. I - Intense exercise

    Try sprinting, cycling or doing a workout.
  3. P - Paced breathing

    Breathe in for six seconds, hold for seven, breathe out for eight, hold for four, and then start again.
  4. P – Progressive muscle relaxation

    Tense and relax your muscles in pairs, i.e. start with both your arms, then your legs etc.

Ways to keep yourself safe in the long term

There are also a number of ways to help yourself in the long term and support your recovery journey.

Talking about self-harm can feel difficult. It is understandable that you might feel nervous to talk to someone, feel like you’ll be judged or feel you won’t be understood. But talking about how you’re feeling with someone you trust can help you to get the right support.

Try talking to someone you feel comfortable and safe with, like a friend or family member. If you don’t feel like you can talk to friends or family, you could talk to someone in your wider community, such as a teacher, a school counsellor/nurse, a faith leader or a youth worker. Think about who you would feel most comfortable communicating with and how, whether it’s face to face, over the phone, by text or email.

In some communities it can feel more difficult to reach out for help because of certain stigmas around mental health. If you reach out for help and the person you talk to does not react the way you hoped, remember that this reaction is about them, not you. Don’t let their reaction discourage you from reaching out again. If you don’t feel like you can reach out to someone you know, remember that there are still lots of people who can help. You may prefer to get support from a professional, a helpline or through a charity. Take a look at our list of organisations that can help, and don’t struggle on your own.

Read our guide to reaching out for help

Speaking to a professional about self-harm can feel scary, but it’s often an important step to recovery. You may be worried that you’ll be misunderstood or judged, but there are lots of trained people that you can talk to who understand and really care. That’s because they speak to lots of young people who are going through this too. They are there to listen and support you.

It is helpful to tell the GP exactly what you are doing and what your worries are. If you need medical treatment for injuries, do make sure you get it. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to go to your GP or hospital for this – they are there to help you get better and it is not their job to judge you.

Your GP will listen and discuss the best options to support you. They might offer you an assessment with a local community mental health team, or if you are under 18, they can refer you to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) for an assessment. These assessments are so they can help you to find the right treatment, such as counselling or talking therapy, where you can talk with a trained mental health professional about what you are feeling and ways you can cope.

The types of talking therapy you might be offered include:

  • cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – a type of therapy that focuses on how your thoughts, beliefs and attitudes affect your feelings and actions
  • dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) – a type of CBT adapted specifically for people who experience emotions very intensely
  • mentalisation-based therapy (MBT) – a type of therapy that focuses on helping you to make sense of your own and other people’s thoughts, feelings and actions

Find out more about counselling and therapy in our guide.

Counselling and therapy

Sometimes the first person you speak to won’t help, but that doesn’t make your feelings invalid. If you are finding it hard to get the right support from your GP, you may find it helpful to turn to other support, such as your school nurse or a specialist organisation such as Samaritans. For more tips and advice getting the right support from your GP, including information about your rights as a patient, visit our guide on how to speak to your GP about mental health.

How to speak to your GP

Journaling can be a helpful way to let out your emotions. It can also help you to recognise what is bothering you and any patterns in what triggers you or causes you to feel bad.

Take a few minutes every day to write down how you are feeling. If you don’t like writing, try doodling, drawing or recording a voice note. Remember this is just a way to express yourself – there’s no right or wrong way to do this and nobody has to see it but you.

If you want to, you could show your journal to any mental health professionals who are supporting you, to help them understand what you are going through.

Sometimes just making small changes to your daily routine can help improve your mood. Consider trying some of these changes:

  • Make sure you get enough sleep and stay hydrated – staying physically healthy can help you to feel happier.
  • Take time out when you need to – this could be going for a walk, doing some drawing or relaxing however you like to.
  • Think of three things you are proud of each day – you could do this when you first wake up or just before you go to sleep.
  • Be as kind to yourself as you would be to your best friend – think about the advice and support you would give someone else if you heard they were struggling.

The internet can be a helpful space for those who self-harm. It offers a lot of information, advice and support. You may also find that it’s easier to speak openly about your feelings through social media, rather than face-to-face. However, there is also a lot of content about self-harm on the internet that can be distressing or make you feel worse. We also know that those who have peers that self-harm are more likely to self-harm themselves. Think about how your use of social media is affecting your mood and what content is best for you. Make sure to only follow accounts that make you feel positive and safe.

Read more about social media and mental health in our guide

Some people find it really helpful to create a 'safety plan' that they can use when the urge to self-harm is really strong. This can include whatever you think would be helpful, but generally it includes ideas of what you can do to distract yourself, who you can speak to, and what else you can do to keep yourself safe. Papyrus have a useful guide to creating a safety plan, which might help if you’d like to create your own. Although the focus of their guide is for suicidal feelings, you can use it for self-harm as well.

See Papyrus' guide

Recovery takes time

Stopping self-harming behaviours can be very difficult.

There is no quick fix and making changes can take a long time. It is common to make progress and then slip back into old behaviours again.

If this happens, remember that you are still making incredible progress and this is all part of your journey to recovery.

An image of a bendy road titled 'the road to recovery'. Text along the road reads: 'start', 'progress', 'hope', 'relapse', 'second attempt', 'setback', 'growth', 'change', 'calm'.

Artwork credit: @crazyheadcomics

An image of a bendy road titled 'the road to recovery'. Text along the road reads: 'start', 'progress', 'hope', 'relapse', 'second attempt', 'setback', 'growth', 'change', 'calm'.

Managing your feelings during and after recovery

If you have self-harmed by cutting or wounding yourself in some way, you are likely to have scars on your body from this. You may find that you have a number of emotions and feelings associated with these scars, such as guilt, regret or difficulties accepting your body image. This can be particularly difficult if you are experiencing stigma around your self-harm.

For advice on how to manage stigma around self-harm within your community, take a look at Louisa’s blog.

The validation of self-harm scars in the mental health community

If you’re really struggling with the scars left on your body, you may be able to find treatment that can help. You can find information about scar treatments on the NHS website. Scars will look different for everyone depending on skin tone, where the scar is and the type of wound that caused the scar, and this will lead to different treatment options. Not everyone will want to do this and that is completely okay – it is your body and you should only do what feels comfortable for you.

Read about scar treatments on the NHS website

Supporting a friend or family member who is self-harming

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It can be really difficult if you know a friend or loved one is self-harming. It’s hard to see someone you love hurting themself in that way, and it can be difficult to know how best to support them.

Just being there and letting them know they’re not alone can be very helpful, but it’s also important to remember that you may not be able to help them on your own.

Remember there is always support available.

Recognising the signs and symptoms of self-harm

There are lots of different ways that someone might self-harm and this can make it difficult to spot the signs. Your loved one is likely to be in both physical and emotional pain during this time. Here are some signs to look out for.

If your loved one is self-harming by cutting or wounding themself, you may be able to notice some physical signs. This could include:

  • keeping their body fully covered all the time, even when it is hot, like wearing long sleeves to conceal scars (this is only a sign of self-harm if they do not normally wear long sleeves or clothes that cover the whole body)
  • having cuts, bruises or burn marks on their body that are unexplained
  • unexplained scarring on their skin
  • unexplained blood stains on clothing or tissues
  • any signs that they are pulling out their hair, for example hair loss or large clumps of hair lying around

Self-harm takes lots of different forms, not just physically hurting yourself. So it’s important to also be aware of the emotional signs. These might include:

  • becoming very withdrawn and talking less than usual to others
  • unusual changes in mood, such as feeling low, teary or demotivated
  • making suicidal comments e.g. talking about not wanting to go on
  • expressing feelings of self-blame, hopelessness or failure

Supporting a loved one with self-harm now

If a friend or family member has self-harmed and has injuries that need medical attention, you should take them to A&E to seek medical help.

The most important thing you can do to support someone is be there to listen. Talking about self-harm is difficult, but having that conversation can help your loved one take the first step to recovery.

Take a look at our tips below for having a sensitive conversation.

You may be experiencing lots of emotions yourself in this situation, such as anger or sadness. But remember that your loved one will be experiencing lots of overwhelming emotions themself. Bringing your emotions to the conversation can make it more difficult for the other person. Although this can be difficult, try to approach the conversation with kindness and an open mind.

There can be a lot of stigma around self-harm which could be making your loved one feel ashamed. Avoid making comments about their actions being ‘attention-seeking’ as this can be very hurtful. Instead, try to ask them open questions about how they’re feeling, focusing on their emotions rather than the self-harm. This could be as simple as asking questions like: ‘How are you feeling?’ or ‘What are you feeling?’ Give them space and time to answer these questions so they don’t feel judged.

Caring relationships are key to helping people stop self-harming. Let your loved one know what you love about them so they can focus on the positives.

Supporting a loved one with self-harm in the long term

Here are some tips on how you can give ongoing support to someone in your life who is self-harming.

Recovery can only happen when your loved one takes steps towards this for themself. You can’t force someone to get better. It can be very difficult to see someone you love struggle with self-harm, but letting them be in control of their decisions will support their recovery in the long term. But remember you should always get them medical attention if needed.

You may find it helpful to develop a ‘safety plan’ with your loved one. This is a tool you can use to help communicate with each other and keep your loved one safe. Samaritans have advice on this as well as a safety plan template you can use.

Recovering from self-harm takes a long time and it is not always a linear journey. It’s important to recognise that your loved one is unlikely to stop self-harming immediately or permanently – there may be times when they start self-harming again. If this happens, it’s important to reassure them that self-harming again is not a sign of failure. Make sure to let them know that you recognise it may take time for them to get better.

Speaking to a GP about self-harm may be a scary thought for your loved one, but encouraging them to do this is important so they get the right support. If they really don’t want to talk to a GP, there are also lots of charity services and helplines that can help.

Get help now

Remember, you are not alone. Here are some services who can help and support you without judgement.

  • Calm Harm

    A free app providing support and strategies to help you resist or manage the urge to self-harm.

    Can be downloaded from Google Play or App Store.

  • Tellmi

    Formerly known as MeeToo. A free app for teenagers (11+) providing resources and a fully-moderated community where you can share your problems, get support and help other people too.

    Can be downloaded from Google Play or App Store.

  • Samaritans

    Whatever you're going through, you can contact the Samaritans for support. N.B. This is a listening service and does not offer advice or intervention.

    Opening times:
    24/7
  • Childline

    If you’re under 19 you can confidentially call, chat online or email about any problem big or small.

    Sign up for a free Childline locker (real name or email address not needed) to use their free 1-2-1 counsellor chat and email support service.

    Can provide a BSL interpreter if you are deaf or hearing-impaired.

    Hosts online message boards where you can share your experiences, have fun and get support from other young people in similar situations.

    Opening times:
    24/7
  • The Mix

    Free, short-term online counselling for young people aged 25 or under. Their website also provides lots of information and advice about mental health and wellbeing. 

    Email support is available via their online contact form.

    They have a free 1-2-1 webchat service available during opening hours.

    Opening times:
    4pm - 11pm, Monday - Friday
  • Black Minds Matter

    Connects Black individuals and families with free professional mental health services across the UK.

    You can get in touch here.

Patient Information Forum Trusted Information Creator (PIF TICK) logo

This page was reviewed in June 2023.

It was co-created by young people with lived experience of self-harm.

We will next review the page in 2026.

YoungMinds is a proud member of PIF TICK – the UK's quality mark for trusted health information.

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