Information for young people on self-harm, with advice on how to help yourself and where to go for support.
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.
Self-harm involves emotionally or physically hurting yourself on purpose. You may also hear it being called:
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:
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:
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).
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.
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:
Young people also told us they self-harm because they want to:
"It’s ok if you don’t know why you’re self-harming."
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."
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:
You could try:
You could try:
You could try:
You could try:
You could try:
You could try:
"Different techniques work at different times – just because something didn’t work once doesn’t mean it won’t work again."
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.
"Just because your injuries aren’t so severe you need urgent medical help, that doesn’t mean you don’t need help."
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:
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:
"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:
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:
"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:
"Some people might not understand – it’s their opinion, not the truth. If that happens, it’s not your fault, they’re not right."
You may find social media and online forums are helpful places to get support for stopping self-harming.
This support may include:
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:
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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:
Remember to be careful when using these sites, as some of the content shared by others may be upsetting.
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 support. This can be very frustrating and worrying.
While you're waiting to be seen, you could try:
"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."
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.
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:
...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."
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 2023.
References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.