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Self-harm refers to ways in which people hurt themselves to seek relief from emotional pain, anger or frustration. In therapy, it is possible to talk openly about the experience of self-harm in a non-judgemental environment.

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What is self-harm?

Normally, self-harm is a term used to describe the act inflicting pain or injury on oneself and is associated with cutting, burning or banging one’s head against walls. 

However, it sometimes has a broader meaning and can be used to describe alcohol or drug abuse as well as attempted suicide. 

At what age do people start self-harming?

Self-harming normally begins during teenage years but can start in childhood or adulthood.  

How common is self-harm? 

About one in 10 young people have gone to see their GP or presented to hospital after self-harming. It is estimated that many more young people self-harm in private and never contact the NHS for help about it. 

In a large study of adults in hospital who had self-harmed, 80% had hurt themselves by taking an overdose and around 15% had self-harmed by cutting. 

Why do people self-harm?

People who self-harm are often trying to manage extreme distress or very difficult circumstances. The act of causing pain can give a sense of control and momentarily replace these feelings of distress with a different sensation. 

Self-harm can also be used as a form of self-punishment.

Reasons for self-harm include: 

  • Feeling depressed.
  • Experiencing physical or sexual abuse.
  • Facing relationship problems with partners, friends, and family. 
  • Being unemployed, or having difficulties at work. 

How can I stop self-harming, or help someone who self-harms?

The first step is to talk to someone about it. It doesn’t matter whether that person is a friend, a teacher or a GP. Sharing the load helps.

Other ways of dealing with the immediate need to self-harm include:

  • Leaving an environment that makes a person feel like hurting themselves.
  • Distracting away from the feeling by going out for a walk or listening to music. 
  • Using techniques such as squeezing ice cubes, flicking a hairband that they place around their wrist or drawing on their skin. 

The next step is to seek help from a professional therapist. Two well-known therapy approaches that help people that self-harm are CBT and counselling.

Cognitive behavioural therapy for people who self-harm

This structured type of counselling teaches specific skills to manage behaviour and change negative thinking patterns into positive ones. 

Psychodynamic counselling for people who self-harm

This approach helps make sense of long-standing conflicts, allowing us to become more self-aware.

Other helpful resources about self-harm

Self Harm UK

Part of the charity YouthScape, Self Harm UK offers courses and resources for young people who are struggling with self-harm.

Self Injury Support

A UK charity dedicated to supporting recovery for people who self-harm.


For people in distress or despair, especially for people experiencing the urge to hurt themselves, Samaritans is open 24 hours a day by phone (116 123) and email (

Click here to see practitioners who specialise in self-harm.