Explains self-harm, including possible causes and how you can access treatment and support. Includes tips for helping yourself, and guidance for friends and family.

Why do people harm themselves?

There are no fixed rules about why people self-harm. It really can be very different for everyone.

For some people, self-harm is linked to specific experiences and is a way of dealing with something that's either happening at the moment or which happened in the past. For others, the reasons are less clear and can be harder to make sense of.

Sometimes you might not know why you hurt yourself. If you don’t understand the reasons for your self-harm, you are not alone and you can still ask for help.

"I started self-harming when I was 15 or 16. I can’t remember why I decided to start, but that’s what I did."

Any difficult experience can cause someone to self-harm. Common reasons include:

Self-harm can be a response to any situation or pressure with the potential to impact on someone.

Some people find that certain actions, such as drinking alcohol or taking drugs, increase the likelihood of self-harm, or that self-harm is more likely to happen at certain times (at night, for example).

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, a lot of people keep their self-harm private, and it can be painful to have your behaviour misunderstood in this way.

However, if you do self-harm as a way of bringing attention to yourself, remember that there is nothing wrong with wanting to be noticed and to have your distress acknowledged and taken seriously. You also deserve a respectful response from those around you, including medical professionals.

"I've learnt that, as my emotional needs were not being met, I used self-harm because I didn't know how to express myself or say what I needed or wanted. A part was also for attention, I was desperate for someone to notice me and help me."

Who self-harms?

Self-harm is something that anyone can do, there is no one typical person who hurts themselves.

The age when people first self-harm ranges from four years old to people in their 60s. Emergency services receive more self-harm related calls from women than men – however, research suggests that men are equally likely to hurt themselves but face greater cultural barriers to reaching out and asking for help.

While anyone can self-harm, difficult experiences that can result in self-harm relate more to some people than others. Exam stress, classroom bullying and peer pressure is something that affects a lot of young people, for example. Questions and confusion about sexual orientation are more common for members of the LGBTQ community, and money worries can create greater stress for those on a lower income. These specific pressures, along with discrimination and stigma, can lead to increased tension which may in turn make self-harm more likely.

"Everyone is individual – there is no specific type of person who self-harms. The journey is unique, as is the road to recovery."

This information was published in October 2016. We will revise it in 2019.

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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