This section is for friends and family members who want to support someone they know who self-harms.
Finding out that someone you care about self-harms
Whether someone tells you directly, or you suspect that someone is hurting themselves, it can be difficult to know what to say and how best to approach the situation.
You might feel shocked, angry, helpless, responsible or any number of other difficult emotions.
- Try not to panic or overreact. The way you respond to your friend or family member will have an impact on how much they open up to you and other people about their self-harm in the future.
- Remember that self-harm is usually someone's way of managing very hard feelings or experiences, and that in the majority of cases it is different to suicidal feelings.
There are lots of things you can do to make a difference to someone you know who self-harms. Your attitude and how you relate to them is one of the key things that can help them feel supported. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Try to be non-judgemental.
- Let the person know that you are there for them.
- Relate to them as a whole person, not just their self-harm.
- Try to have empathy and understanding about what they are doing.
- Let them be in control of their decisions.
- Offer to help them find support (see Useful contacts).
- Remind them of their positive qualities and things they do well.
- Try to have honest communication, where you take responsibility for any fears you have.
Having friends I could ring up and talk to about everyday things gave me some respite from the despair.
What doesn't help?
Sometimes, even with the best will in the world, attempts to support someone can backfire. Here are some potential pitfalls to watch out for:
- Trying to force change.
- Acting or communicating in a way that threatens to take control away from your loved one.
- Either ignoring their injuries or overly focusing on them.
- Labelling self-harm as 'attention seeking'.
Although it often isn't, self-harm can sometimes be a person's way of asking for attention. If so, it is important to remember that there is nothing wrong with wanting attention, and that deep distress can get in the way of someone's ability to be direct about what they need.
Take care of yourself
Supporting someone who is self-harming can be a long process with many ups and downs. Taking care of yourself will enable you to stay involved for longer and to keep well. See How to cope as a carer for more information.
Helpful things to put in place are:
- having clear boundaries about how much and what sort of support you can offer
- finding out what other support is available
- getting support and information for yourself – Young Minds offers support for parents, and Sane and Self-injury Support run support services for people concerned about someone else's mental health. You may find it helpful to try a talking treatment if you are finding things difficult.
Supporting people to stay safe
It is common to feel scared about the possibility of someone seriously hurting themselves or even taking their own life. While it is understandable to have these fears, it is useful to remember that self-harm doesn't necessarily mean that someone wants to end their life.
I self-harmed for many reasons and, although it was very dangerous, I think it ultimately saved my life. If I hadn’t had it as my coping mechanism, I would probably have just committed suicide.
There are, however, a small number of people who do go on to take their own lives, either intentionally or accidentally. It’s therefore important to have an honest conversation with your friend or family member about staying safe – for example, being aware when things are getting too much and knowing when to seek help. See Suicidal feelings and the Samaritans website for more information.
This information was published in October 2016. We will revise it in 2019.