Self harm

Self harm means any behaviour which involves the deliberate causing of pain or injury to oneself. This includes cutting, burning or hitting oneself, overdosing on prescription or illegal drugs or abuse of drugs and alcohol, or even binge-eating or starvation and repeatedly putting oneself in dangerous situations.

Self harm is usually a response to distress - often the distress associated with mental illness. In the short-term, some people find that self harm provides temporary relief from the psychological distress they are experiencing. While people who self harm do not necessarily mean to kill themselves, it often becomes compulsive and dangerous activity and requires careful professional help.

What are the causes?

People who deliberately harm themselves have often had tough experiences or relationships in their lives. They may have:

  • Been bullied or discriminated against.
  • Lost someone close to them, such as a parent, brother, sister or friend.
  • Broken up with a boyfriend or girlfriend .
  • Been physically or sexually abused.
  • Experienced a serious illness or disability that affects the way they feel about themselves.
  • Experienced problems with family, school or peer groups.

Why do people self harm? 

Deliberate self harm may be used as a way to cope with experiences and the strong feelings associated with these experiences. Self harm may:

  • Provide a way to express difficult or hidden feelings: It is not uncommon to feel numb or empty as a result of overwhelming. Engaging in deliberate self harm may provide them with a temporary sense of feeling again. It may also provide a way to express anger, sadness, grief or hurt.
  • Be a way of communicating to people that you need some support. When a person feels unable to use words to express how they are feeling, they may self harm to get the message across.
  • Be a way of proving to themself that they are not invisible.
  • Provide a person with a feeling of control. They might feel that self harm is one way they can have a sense of control over their life, feelings, or body, especially if the person feels as if other things in their life are out of control.

How is self harm treated?

Self harm may be associated with a sense of guilt, depression, low self esteem or self hatred along with a tendency to isolate oneself from others. Counselling may assist in dealing with these issues.  Finding others ways to cope with associated feelings and distraction techniques to avoid urges to self harm are common treatment options.

Sources of information:

ORYGEN Youth Health

Reach Out! website 

Suicideline: Self-help for self-harm

Suicideline has a page on their website in relation to self harm, coping strategies and where to get help.

Self harm information page by Reach Out!

The aim of the service is to improve young people's mental health and well being by providing support information and referrals. Reach Out!'s information page on self harm includes what is self-harm, how to cope without harming yourself and how to support others.

Understanding self harm & the effects on mental health by Headspace

Headspace is a youth friendly, community based health service for young people aged 12 - 25 and their families. Their fact sheet on self harm details information on what it is, the causes and what to do if you or someone you know who self harms.

A fact sheet on self harm by Orygen Youth Health Clinical Program

Orygen Youth Health Clinical Program (OYHCP) is a world-leading youth mental health program based in Melbourne, Australia. OYHCP's fact sheet provides information about self harm, what to look for, causes, advice and referral.

The following information is provided by Headspace in relation to responding to a young person who self harms. 

Some young people stop self harming on their own. Others can continue in a fairly safe way while others may place themselves at risk of dying. The best way to help someone you know that is self harming is to encourage and support them to seek professional help. Try to make them feel safe enough to discuss their feelings. Try to remain calm and maintain an open attitude recognising the young person may feel ashamed of their actions and be fearful of your judgements.

It is important that you ask the young person whether he/she feels suicidal. Call your local hospital or mental health service if you think the young person is suicidal to get professional help. Initial treatment involves dealing with any immediate medical complications of self harm, if present. Call an ambulance (000) or take the person to the accident and emergency department of the local hospital if the person needs urgent medical attention.

The Suicide Helpline also recommends the following when responding to a person who self harms:

  • Don't panic or overreact.
  • Make sure the person gets medical attention if needed.
  • Try to respond neutrally (to prevent reinforcing behaviour). Acknowledge what the person has done in a matter of fact way. Being angry or punishing can reinforce the behaviour; as can being overly caring or concerned.
  • If other young people are present, take the person away from a situation where they might attract unnecessary attention. This helps to prevent reinforcement.
  • The motivation to reduce or stop self-harming behaviour must come from the individual; ultimatums do not work!
  • Help the person to access appropriate counselling or mental health support.
  • Removing self harm as a coping strategy (without replacing it with more adaptive ones) can leave the person more vulnerable if they have no other way of coping with their distress.
  • Make yourself available to listen. Encourage them to come and talk out their feelings instead of self harming.
  • Take their problems seriously and model effective problem solving.
  • Find ways to enhance self esteem and recognise their positive qualities.
  • Develop effective communication, coping and social skills.

Supporting someone who self harms can be a stressful experience so getting support for yourself is also recommended.


Suicideline has a page on their website about self harm, as well as information to assist you when you are worried about someone else.


A community based service for people aged 12 - 25 and their families, Headspace provides help for issues including health, education, work, mental health and drug & alcohol use.

Orygen Youth Health Clinical Program (OYHCP)

Orygen Youth Health Clinical Program (OYHCP) is a world-leading youth mental health program based in Melbourne, Australia. OYHCP sees young people aged 15 to 25, with a focus on early intervention and youth specific approaches.

Reach Out!

An initiative of the Inspire Foundation, Reach Out! is a web based service that provides information, support and interactive features to help young people get through tough times.

SANE Australia

SANE conducts innovative programs and campaigns to improve the lives of people living with mental illness, their family and friends. It also operates a busy telephone helpline and website.

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