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Coping with self-harm – for young people

Information for young people on self-harm, with advice on how to help yourself and where to go for support.

This page is also available in Welsh.

Coping with self-harm 

Self-harm can affect us in lots of different ways.

You might have self-harmed before, be thinking about self-harm, or wanting to support someone else who is self-harming. You might have also heard people talking about self-harm but aren’t sure what it means.

Self-harm can be hard to talk about because it can be linked to emotions we don’t know how to voice. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

We’re here to help you understand self-harm, and explain what help and support is available to you.

This page covers:

If you want to know how to support a friend or partner, see our page on supporting someone with self-harm.

Warning: some information on this page may be difficult to read or may cause strong or upsetting feelings. Please only carry on reading if you feel safe to do so.

Stay safe

If you feel overwhelmed, or like you want to hurt yourself, support is available for you to talk things through. You deserve help as soon as you need it.

To talk with someone confidentially about how you feel, you can:

If you feel like you may attempt suicide, or you have seriously hurt yourself, this is an emergency. You can:

  • Call 999 and ask for an ambulance.
  • Tell an adult you trust and ask them to call 999 for help.

Mental health emergencies are serious. You aren't wasting anyone's time.

What is self-harm? 

Self-harm involves emotionally or physically hurting yourself on purpose. You may also hear it being called:

  • ‘self-injury’
  • ‘cutting’
  • ‘self-violence’
  • ‘non-suicidal self-injury’
  • ‘self-injurious behaviour’.

People self-harm for many different reasons, and in many different ways. The reason or way they self-harm may be different each time too. And sometimes they may self-harm but not realise until afterwards.

Self-harm is often misunderstood. Let’s break down some myths and stereotypes you may have heard:

Self-harm can take many forms, including:

  • hurting or injuring yourself, like headbutting a wall
  • poisoning yourself
  • doing something that will put you in danger, like getting into fights or binge-drinking
  • not looking after yourself, like not eating meals or washing
  • sending hateful or abusive messages to yourself, or about yourself, online.

Any way that someone hurts or injures themselves on purpose can be seen as self-harm.

If you don’t realise what you’re doing is self-harm, it can be harder to recognise that you need help and support. So it’s important to try to understand the reasons behind the behaviour.

"Self-harm can come in different forms. I didn’t know I was self-harming during the biggest part of it. There will be people out there doing these things and not realising the magnitude of what they’re doing."

Anyone can self-harm, no matter what their gender is.

More girls are seen by doctors or local services for self-harm, but that doesn’t mean they're the only ones who hurt themselves on purpose.

Boys and men are affected too. And it might be myths like this that make it harder for them to seek help.

If boys self-harm, they may feel judged or misunderstood. Or if their self-harm is hidden by angry behaviour, it may take longer to be recognised and for them to receive help.

People can self-harm at any age.

Children under the age of 11 can still think about hurting themselves, and even about suicide.

It may be harder to recognise self-harm in children. For example, if they are too young to understand their behaviour, or aren’t able to talk to someone about it.

Self-harm is not contagious. It can’t be caught like a disease and being near someone who’s self-harmed doesn’t mean you will self-harm. Nor will being told about someone’s self-harm.

But there is a greater chance of self-harm if someone close to you has self-harmed. They could be physically close, like in the same class, or emotionally close, like a friend or family member.

Here’s some reasons why:

  • it can be seen as a ‘normal’ response within a group to deal with difficult feelings or experiences
  • someone may learn how to harm themselves from someone else
  • it can be a result of peer pressure, like copying others to fit in.

This is why we should be careful about how we talk about self-harm to others, and what we see or read online.

Someone might hurt themselves over a long period of time, a short period of time, or even just once or twice. However long their self-harm lasts, it isn’t a phase and it shouldn’t be ignored.

Being told it’s ‘just a phase’, ‘it’s emo’, or to ‘stop it’ won’t help that person stop self-harming. It might make them feel worse and cause them to hurt themselves more.

People who self-harm need to feel understood. They also need to be supported to learn new ways to cope with their feelings.

"At school, if there was someone who had scars on their arms, people would laugh, call them emo and simply be ignorant to it."

Not everybody who self-harms is thinking about ending their life.

Some people who self-harm also experience suicidal feelings, but it doesn’t always mean they want to die.

If someone is self-harming and they also feel suicidal, this is an emergency. They could text ‘YM’ to 85258 to talk to an advisor from YoungMind's Crisis Messenger service, or an adult should call 999 to make sure they get the help they need.

People who self-harm may keep it quiet for months or years before telling someone or asking for help.

They may hide their self-harm because they’re ashamed or worried about how others will react, or because they don’t want to feel like a ‘burden’.

The way someone self-harms may not leave obvious marks or signs either.

It’s important to remember there is nothing to be ashamed of. And keeping your self-harm a secret may stop you from getting the help you need.

Some people use self-harm as a way to cope with a negative experience, thought or feeling. They may feel it's the only way for them to cope with the situation, or their feelings, at that time.

However, self-harm is a negative coping strategy. It may get rid of some of the stress or emotion at first, but it doesn’t help deal with the reason you’re feeling distressed.

And if you start to rely on self-harm as a coping strategy, over time it stops providing a sense of comfort or release, and it helps less and less.

Self-harm is not a diagnosis of a mental health problem. It’s a behaviour often used to deal with difficult thoughts or experiences.

When someone hurts themselves, it could be linked to mental health problems. But on its own, it doesn’t mean someone has a mental health problem.

Treatment and support for self-harm may be through mental health services, like Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). Find out more on our page about understanding CAMHS.

It’s good to remember that mental health is about how we think, feel and act, and we all have mental health. Getting support for your mental health is a good thing, whether you have a mental health problem or not.

"Mental illness comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s good for people to know that you don’t have to want to harm yourself to need help."

With the right help and support, you can reduce your self-harm and then stop self-harming.

But it may not be easy. The longer you have self-harmed, the longer it may take to break down your reliance on it and replace it with something safer.

Recovery from self-harm is a process, not an end goal. Recovery may be about managing the urge to self-harm, rather than stopping completely.

Sometimes there may be setbacks, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you don’t want to get better, and it’s part of learning what does and doesn’t help you.

Wanting to change how you cope is a great first step to stopping self-harming.

Why do people self-harm?

People self-harm for different reasons.

They might self-harm as a way of dealing with something difficult that is happening or has happened to them in the past. Or they might not know why they’re hurting themselves. Even if you don’t understand why you’re self-harming, you’re not alone and you can still get help.

Some reasons young people self-harm include:

  • living with health problems – like a physical health problem or an illness
  • living with a mental health problem – or experiences linked with poor mental health, like anger or hearing voices
  • living with conditions like ADHD or autism
  • stressful or upsetting experiences – like relationship problems, losing a loved one, bullying, abuse or money worries
  • intrusive thoughts – thoughts that you don’t want but keep coming to you
  • problems with how you feel about yourself – like experiencing racism or homophobia, questioning your sexuality or identity, having low self-esteem or body image worries
  • self-harm feeling ‘normal’ among your peers
  • seeing images of self-harm online
  • drinking alcohol or taking drugs.

Young people also told us they self-harm because they want to:

  • show how they feel without speaking
  • be distracted from how they’re feeling
  • cope with, or escape from, painful feelings, thoughts or memories
  • punish themselves for something
  • stop feeling disconnected from themselves or the world
  • create a reason to look after themselves, like caring for wounds
  • manage thoughts of suicide.

"It’s ok if you don’t know why you’re self-harming."

Self-harm during coronavirus

During the coronavirus pandemic, young people told us they’re missing positive coping strategies, like seeing friends or being outside.

They also told us that they’re using more negative coping strategies, such as drinking alcohol, using illegal drugs and self-harming.

If you’ve started self-harming, your self-harm has got worse, or you’re worried you might hurt yourself, you can text ‘YM’ to 85258 to talk to a trained volunteer from YoungMind's Crisis Messenger service. They will text you back, listen to how you’re feeling and help you work things through.

Some people may try self-harm once, and then move onto a different coping strategy. Others might try it several times because it seems to work, and then start to rely on it.

Self-harm can also bring up difficult emotions, like guilt or shame, which may make it harder to stop or to reach out for help.

Remember: self-harm can only bring temporary relief. It does not help or stop the original problem and it can also put your life in danger. But you can be helped and supported to find new ways of coping.

"Self-harm is something we think makes us feel better, but it doesn’t. In that moment, yes it does. But it offers temporary relief."

Self-harm and being LGBTIQ+

Young people who are part of the LGBTIQ+ community, or are still working out what their gender or sexuality is, may experience:

  • someone reacting badly when they come out, like being rejected
  • being bullied, or experiencing stigma or discrimination
  • feeling confused, uncomfortable, or negative about who they are
  • dealing with sexuality or gender stereotypes, to act or be a certain way
  • a lack of support from people around them
  • feeling unable to talk openly about how they feel
  • supporting other friends who are also LGBTIQ+.

If they don’t know how else to cope, they may be more likely to self-harm.

This is why young people who identify as LGBTIQ+ need support. For LGBTIQ+ support, you can visit Stonewall and Mermaids.

Coping with the urge to self-harm

When you want to self-harm, it can be hard to focus on anything else or to think about other ways to cope. Especially if you’ve self-harmed for a long time. 

With time and practice, you can find other ways to cope with your feelings.

Some of these strategies might not work for you. Or you might find that different things work for you at different times. That’s okay. Only try what you feel comfortable with. 

Remember: any way of delaying or distracting yourself from the urge to self-harm should be celebrated.

Distracting yourself and ways to replace the self-harm

There are things you can do to distract yourself from the urge to self-harm, or to replace the self-harm with something else. 

What works for you will depend on how you’re feeling and why you want to self-harm. So we have tips for dealing with different emotions. We also have some tips from young people about what works for them. 

You could try: 

  • hitting cushions 
  • shouting 
  • running or other exercise 
  • squeezing a stress ball 
  • tearing up paper.

You could try: 

  • listening to calming music 
  • crying 
  • sleeping 
  • using a heavy or weighted blanket 
  • spending time outside 
  • finding strength or support in a faith or belief system 
  • a breathing exercise – you could try breathing in through your nose for four counts, holding it for two counts, and breathing out through your mouth for seven counts.

You could try: 

  • tidying up your room or bag 
  • writing lists 
  • writing a letter saying everything you’re feeling, then tearing it up. 

You could try: 

  • holding or rubbing ice cubes on your skin 
  • smell something strong, like essential oils or foods 
  • watching funny videos on YouTube or TikTok 
  • a grounding exercise – try to focus on what’s going on around you, then try to name five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.

You could try: 

  • calling a friend 
  • calling a helpline 
  • asking to spend time with people you live with 
  • helping someone else 
  • going somewhere public and safe, like a park.

You could try: 

  • reminding yourself that failure is okay, and everyone makes mistakes 
  • spending less time with people who are unkind, and more time with those who really care about you.

You could try: 

  • being creative to express how you feel about yourself, like through singing, dancing or drawing
  • writing a letter to yourself – first being honest about how you feel about yourself, then writing a reply filled with kindness and acceptance, as if you were writing to a friend 
  • finding a pose in the mirror that makes you feel strong. 
  • Get rid of things that you can use to self-harm – "Giving stuff in my room to my parents is helpful."
  • Keep your hands busy – "I used an elastic band to fling my wrist instead of self-harming; I also used to draw on where I wanted to harm myself."
  • Be with other people – "Instead of being alone, I go to be with people, as I wouldn’t self-harm if I was with others."
  • Spend time with people you trust – "I coped by forcing myself to go for walks with my friends or cousins, or calling my boyfriend."
  • Change the physical space you’re in – "I try to get out of the space I’m in."
  • Self-soothe – "I have a little box full of calming things, like fidget toys and essential oils.”
  • Write down how you’re feeling – "Every thought I had, no matter how uncomfortable it felt, and I would tear it up."
  • Monitor your feelings – "Keep a journal to help track your mood and when you feel the lowest.”
  • Do something to look after yourself – "One of the biggest things is forcing yourself to do things that you know will benefit you, like having a shower.”
  • Do something you enjoy – "Usually when I’m going through a rough time and feeling the urge, I do something that I enjoy, like listening to inspirational music."
  • Avoid talking if it will make you feel worse – "The more I talked about it, the more frequently the urges would come and it dragged me back in. I tried to talk to friends about more healthy things so I could feel like my old self again."
  • Notice what does and doesn't help you – "Not all these things will work for everyone. If your form of self-harm is under-eating or over exercising, running won’t be a good idea."

"Different techniques work at different times – just because something didn’t work once doesn’t mean it won’t work again."

Delaying self-harm

Instead of trying to replace self-harm with something else, you could try to delay self-harming. This can feel really hard, so try to start with a small amount of time before building up to longer delays.

For example, you could start by trying to wait 30 seconds before you self-harm. If you can do this, next try waiting for a couple of minutes, and then slowly increase the time you wait.

Some people call this ‘riding the wave’, as the urge to self-harm can rise and fall like a wave.

Apps like Calm Harm can support you by providing activities for you to manage the urge to self-harm, as well as ways to track your progress. Calm Harm can also be made private so no-one else can see what you save.

Caring for injuries

It’s important to look after your injuries so you don’t get poorly from them. You can keep injuries clean by getting them checked regularly by a doctor or nurse. Do not try to find medical advice or tips online.

If you’re worried about an injury or about something you’ve put into your body, talk to your doctor. If you can’t see a doctor or nurse right away, call NHS Choices on 111 or 999 if it's an emergency.

"Just because your injuries aren’t so severe you need urgent medical help, that doesn’t mean you don’t need help."

How can I help myself in the future?

Helping yourself in the long term involves exploring the reasons why you self-harm, as well as trying to find safer ways to express your feelings.

Remember: recovery is a process. It may take time and feel hard, but it is possible.

When you feel able to, you could try to:

  • Accept the feelings behind the self-harm. This could be in a safe space with a counsellor or with another trusted adult.
  • Understand your self-harm. Write down what triggers or causes you to self-harm over a set period of time, like a month or two. You could think about what you were doing, where you were and what you felt before you self-harmed. You could then think of ways to avoid or change those situations in the future.
  • Reach out for support. This can feel really scary, especially if you’re worried that people won’t understand or might judge you. But opening up is often the first step to getting the help and support that you need. See the 'How do I tell someone I’m self-harming' section for our tips.
  • Create a safety plan. This could list signs that mean you might be close to self-harming, some coping strategies you find helpful, how family or friends can support you and get you extra help to stay safe, and contact details of your doctor or crisis team. Once you’ve made the plan, you can keep it somewhere easily accessible, like your bag, purse or wallet.

How do I tell someone I’m self-harming?

Try to tell someone you trust as soon as you feel ready to reach out.

Some people may not understand straight away. This could be because they don’t understand self-harm, or they’re upset and in shock.

Remember: this is not your fault, and there is always someone there to support you. This could be a parent or carer, a friend, a partner or a professional like a teacher, doctor or counsellor.

Before you talk to someone, you might want to think about:

  • Writing down how you feel – you could do this when you’re feeling calm, or just before or after you’ve self-harmed.
  • Practising what you want to say, or speaking confidentially to Childline or The Mix first.
  • Who you want to talk to – you could think about who will be kind and supportive.
  • How you’d feel most comfortable telling them – this could be sitting down face-to-face, doing something together, talking over the phone or giving them a letter.
  • If you have low self-esteem – this can sometimes make you feel like you're a ‘burden’ to others. This isn’t true but can make it feel harder to reach out. If you feel like this, you could try having a chat with a counsellor from Childline or The Mix. They could give you some encouragement or positive things to remember.
  • Looking at our information on opening up for more suggestions.

"People might realise what they’re doing, but they might not feel ready to talk. You’ve got to be emotionally ready to open up."

Once you feel ready to talk, you could:

  • Think about how to start the conversation – there’s no right or wrong way to do this, but if you need some ideas, you could try:
    ‘This is difficult for me to talk about, but I need to tell you something.’
    ‘I need your support with something, can we talk?’
    ‘I’ve been hurting myself because I feel…’
  • Ask someone you trust to help you explain – or to tell someone for you, if they feel able to.
  • Try not to tell them too many details about how you self-harm. It may be upsetting for them to hear or a lot for them to take in at first.
  • Explain what you’d like from them – are you looking for someone to listen or to help you find support?
  • Ask them to let you know if they need to tell someone else – so you know what to expect.
  • Plan to do something kind for yourself afterwards – telling someone may not be easy, but it’s something you should feel proud of.

Some young people find their parents don’t fully understand what they’ve been told, or don’t want to believe it. If you experience this, try not to give up. They still love you but might need more time.

Here are some tips for dealing with this:

  • Be honest about why you’re telling them – let them know that you trust them to support you.
  • Recognise it may be a shock for them and that you may need to try talking to them again another time.
  • Look after yourself – tell them as much as you feel comfortable with at the time. If the conversation becomes too upsetting, ask if you can come back to it at another time.
  • Share information with them – it can help to show trusted information about self-harm, like this page, to who you’re talking to. Your parent or carer can also contact YoungMinds’ Parents Helpline for advice.
  • Try a different way of telling them, like writing a letter, if they are struggling to talk to you about it.
  • Get help from others – can you think of any trusted adults who can help you speak to them? For example, a teacher, school nurse, counsellor or family friend. 
  • Feel proud of the fact you reached out to them for support.

"There is a big gap between how young people and older people view self-harm. Because parents are so upset, some of their responses can be unhelpful."

You may feel like you can’t talk to your parents or carers because they won’t understand, or because of their cultural or religious beliefs about self-harm. Or they may be a part of the reason you’re hurting yourself.

That’s okay, and there are still people you can talk to and who can offer you support.

You could try:

  • speaking to another trusted adult, like a teacher, school nurse or counsellor
  • talking to a friend
  • talking to a helpline, like Childline or The Mix.

"Some people might not understand – it’s their opinion, not the truth. If that happens, it’s not your fault, they’re not right."

Self-harm and social media

You may find social media and online forums are helpful places to get support for stopping self-harming.

This support may include:

  • sharing distraction methods
  • sharing success stories in delaying or stopping self-harm
  • talking to people who understand what you’re going through.

But reading about self-harm online can be can upsetting and dangerous. For example, if people share images of their self-harm, include it in Snapchat stories, or encourage others to hurt themselves through comparing or ‘competitions’.

Also, if you’re trying to support someone else online, this can be very difficult, especially if you always feel the need to help ‘more’.

"Sometimes it’s a really toxic place to be – a lot of people share their personal stories, and sometimes it can benefit me, but it can also send someone off the rails."

Social media sites like Instagram are working on better ways to recognise self-harm content online, and for users to be supported with their thoughts and feelings in a safe way.

When you’re online, try to:

  • Avoid sharing images or distressing descriptions of self-harm.
  • Report anyone you’re worried about, or who seems to be trying to make others feel worse. You can find self-harm reporting guidelines summed up at Internet Matters.
  • Read information about self-harm on safe and trusted sites that have been set up to help you, like Mind, Alumina or Childline.

You can also read the UK Safer Internet Centre’s advice on staying safe online.

“Don’t fall down a rabbit hole of searching for self-harm on social media, it does more harm than good.”

What treatment and support is available for self-harm?

Managing your self-harm is much easier when you have the support of people who are trained to help you.

Here are some of the ways you can get professional support:

Talking to your doctor is often the first step to getting treatment and support for self-harm. Your doctor will listen to you and talk to you about how you can stay safe. As self-harm can be a sign of a mental health problem, they may also ask you questions about how you’ve been feeling and what’s been going on for you recently.

Your doctor may refer you to support services, such as CAMHS, so you can get help for your self-harm or a mental health problem.

If they’re concerned that your self-harm is a threat to your life, or if you need medical treatment for injuries, they may call an ambulance.

If your doctor isn’t helpful, you can ask to see another doctor for a different opinion – although you may have to wait for another appointment.

You can visit our page on talking to your doctor for more information and tips.

Self-harm and confidentiality

Everything you say in an appointment will normally be kept between you and your doctor. They will only share what you've told them with someone else if they are worried that you or someone else could be in danger.

For more information, see our page on confidentiality.

Teachers, school nurses and pupil support teams are all there to look after your wellbeing.

By talking to someone you trust at school or college, they may be able to offer you some support, like counselling. They could also help you talk to your parents or carers, or a doctor, about your self-harm.

Self-harm and confidentiality

Staff will follow their school or college’s own policy on sharing self-harm disclosures. It’s important to know that these policies will be slightly different everywhere.

If you’re feeling worried, ask the person you’re speaking to. They can tell you about the rules they have to follow, and what will happen with the information you tell them.

For more information, see our page on confidentiality.

Talking therapies for self-harm include:

They involve talking to a professional about how you feel, and learning new skills, like understanding your emotions or coping with specific feelings or situations.

You can ask your doctor to refer you to talking therapies. You may also be able to refer yourself through local Minds or Improving Access to Psychological Therapy (IAPT) services. You can use our map to find your local Mind.

You may need to have an assessment before you start therapy. If you’d like to read about what an assessment might involve, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has written some guidelines for young people.

Meeting with other young people who have similar experiences can help you to support each other and learn new ways to cope. A support group might involve some form of group therapy.

Local Minds or NHS services may offer peer support for young people who self-harm. You can use our map to find your local Mind.

You may prefer to get support over email, phone, text or forums.

There are lots of organisations that support young people this way:

  • Alumina – provides free online self-harm support for 14–19 year olds.
  • Childline – you can speak to a counsellor or chat to other young people on their message boards.
  • The Mix – offers counselling services, a helpline, webchat and community message boards.
  • Self Injury Support – provides information and support for girls and young women in distress, including a text and webchat service.
  • MeeToo – an app that allows you to talk about difficult things with people your age, while hiding your identity. All posts and responses are moderated for safety.
  • YoungMinds – you can text their crisis messenger service at any time for support.

Remember to be careful when using these sites, as some of the content shared by others may be upsetting.

Service waiting lists

You may have to wait for treatment and support, possibly for months or even a year. Or you may be told you don’t meet the requirements of the service to access supportThis can be very frustrating and worrying.

While you're waiting to be seen, you could try: 

  • asking your doctor if there’s anything else you can try while you wait 
  • using our tips on 'Coping with the urge to self-harm'
  • creating a safety plan you can use, and think about sharing it with people close to you 
  • using helplines and message boards like Childline's for support. 

"You’re not too broken or too far gone for help. There is always help available. And things do get better. It can feel so lonely and scary. But you’re not alone."

Coping with scars

Self-harm scars can fade. But as we all have different skin, some may stay visible over time.  

Some people feel that their scars are an important part of their journey, and a reminder that they’ve come through a difficult experience. For others, they may be upsetting, especially if they’re worried about what other people will think. 

It’s your decision whether you want to show or hide your scars.  For more information, see LifeSIGNS’ pages on scar reduction and showing scars. 

Coping with relapses

You might have gone some time without self-harming, but then started again. This is called a 'relapse'.

Self-harming again is nothing to be ashamed about, and no reason to feel weak. Recovery is a journey and will involve ups and downs. 

You may have relapsed because: 

  • you felt a particularly strong emotion, like sadness, stress, or anger 
  • you’re going through a difficult situation, like exams or a break-up 
  • you’re going through trauma   remembering things that are upsetting or hard to deal with 
  • you’re hurt or ill

...or it may be a reason not listed here.  

When you’re feeling a bit better, you can try to work out why you self-harmed again. This will help you to make changes and prepare for similar situations in the future. 

You can also think back to when you stopped self-harming before, and what helped and didn’t help last time. Is there anything you can do again now? 

Letting someone know that you’ve started self-harming again can help make sure you get the right support. It may be that your doctor can refer you for some further support, or your teachers can give you some extra help at school or college. 

Starting the process of not self-harming again shows your strength. And you know you were already successful in stopping once. So this time, you may find it easier to stay free from self-harm for longer.

"I try to remember that I’ve got out of self-harm before, so I can again. I’m a lot more knowledgeable about myself and I’m not going back to the beginning."

Where else can I get support?

You might find our guides on understanding mental health problems, opening up to friends and family or talking to your doctor helpful. 

For a list of other organisations who can help, visit our useful contacts page. Many organisations offer text or instant messaging services for extra privacy. 

"It does get better. I’ve been clean for a year. Sometimes the urges come back, but I’ve learned to cope better. Don’t assume you can’t be helped, because you can."

This information was published in June 2021. We will revise it in 2024.

References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.

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