Researchers at the University of Oxford, in conjunction with parents and young people, have developed a guide for parents and carers on coping with self-harm. Read the guide here: Coping with Self Harm Guide
What is self-harm?
Self-harm is when you hurt yourself as a way of dealing with very difficult feelings, old memories, or overwhelming situations and experiences. The ways you hurt yourself can be physical, such as cutting yourself. They can also be less obvious, such as putting yourself in risky situations, or not looking after your own physical or emotional needs.
Ways of self-harming can include:
- cutting yourself
- poisoning yourself
- over-eating or under-eating
- burning your skin
- inserting objects into your body
- hitting yourself or walls
- exercising excessively
- scratching and hair pulling.
After self-harming, you might feel better and more able to cope for a while. However, self-harm can bring up very difficult feelings and could make you feel worse.
If you self-harm, you may feel embarrassed or ashamed about it. You might be worried that other people will judge you or pressurise you to stop if you tell them about it. This may mean that you keep your selfharming a secret. This is a very common reaction, although not everyone does this.
Why do people harm themselves?
There are no fixed rules about why people self-harm. For some people, it can be linked to specific experiences, and be a way of dealing with something that is happening now, or that happened in the past. For others, it is less clear. If you don’t understand the reasons for your self-harm, it’s important to remind yourself that this is OK, and you don’t need to know this in order to ask for help.
Any difficult experience can cause someone to self-harm. Common causes include:
- pressures at school or work
- money worries
- sexual, physical or emotional abuse
- confusion about your sexuality
- breakdown of relationships
- an illness or health problem
- difficult feelings, such as depression, anxiety, anger or numbness, experienced as part of a mental health problem.
Some people have also described self-harm as a way to:
- express something that is hard to put into words
- make experiences, thoughts or feelings that feel invisible into something visible
- change emotional pain into physical pain
- reduce overwhelming emotional feelings or thoughts
- have a sense of being in control
- escape traumatic memories
- stop feeling numb, disconnected or dissociated (see dissociative disorders)
- create a reason to physically care for yourself
- express suicidal feelings and thoughts without taking your own life
- communicate to other people that you are experiencing severe distress.
“I used to cut myself just so I could feel pain. [It] let me know I was real and I wasn’t in a dream.
I ‘needed’ to harm to punish myself for being what I believed then to be a terrible person and to clear the fog in my head. As soon as I did, I’d feel in control, calm and as though a reset button had been pressed in my head.”
Sometimes people talk about self-harm as attention-seeking. If people make comments like this, it can leave you feeling judged and alienated. In reality, most people keep their self-harm private, and it can feel very painful to have your behaviour misunderstood in this way.
If you do self-harm as a way of bringing attention to yourself, remember that you deserve a respectful response from those around you, including from medical professionals.