FOCUS ON: Self-Harm – Understanding Self-Harm (Part 1)

Self-harm is a common problem and secret many people struggle with on a daily basis. It is often treated as a “taboo” subject and as a result is largely misunderstood and misrepresented. 


The purpose of this Focus On series is to help you better understand what self-harming is, why it happens, how to cope with it, and how to break its destructive cycle.

What is self-harm?

It may sound contradictory and is often difficult for non-self-harmers to understand, but in most cases self-harm is used as a way to deal with intense emotional pain and distress. The use of physical pain helps the person distract themselves from the emotional pain they are experiencing. People who self-harm often speak of the sense of release it brings them, that it makes them feel alive during times when they are so emotionally numb, nothing else can get through to them.

Self-harmers are often accused of being attention seeking and manipulative. However in the majority of cases those who self-harm tend to do so secretively, doing all they can to hide their scars and bruises. This in turn creates an additional emotional burden in that it slowly starts affecting all aspects of their lives: what they can wear, what kind of activities and sports they can partake in, relationships with both friends and family. The “solution” which is meant to bring relief soon creates new problems and stress and so an addictive behaviour pattern can develop.

The term “self-harm” is just one name for the habitual and deliberate infliction of pain as a form of emotional and psychological release; it is also referred to as: self-inflicted violence, self-mutilation and self-abuse. Regardless of the label used the most common forms of harm or injury used include:

  • cutting
  • severe scratching of skin
  • burning
  • scalding
  • banging or hitting your body
  • hair pulling
  • intentionally picking at wounds and preventing them from healing
  • sticking objects into or through the skin
  • swallowing poisonous substances or objects

Self-harm also includes less deliberate or conscious forms of hurt or danger such as: reckless driving, binge drinking, drug abuse, and unsafe sexual practices.


Who self-harms?

Self-harming is a common problem among 11 – 25 year olds, with the average age of onset being 12. There is no “typical self-harmer”, girls are 4 times more likely than boys to self-harm – meaning that boys and young men are not immune to it, but are more likely to hit or bruise themselves so people often dismiss the signs as being the result of an accident or fight.

Certain groups have been identified as being more vulnerable to self-harm:

  • children & young people with learning disabilities
  • children & young people living in residential settings i.e. prison, shelters, hostels and boarding school
  • lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender young people


Why do people self-harm?

Self-harm is used as a coping mechanism by young people who are unable to express their feelings, guilt, sadness, anger, emptiness or rage in more healthy ways. For these young people self-harm helps them to:

  • express their feelings, which they often cannot put into words
  • give them a sense of control over their lives
  • release pent up pain and tension
  • relieve guilt and punish themselves
  • feel alive, feel something, rather than feeling emotionally numb and disconnected
  • distract them from difficult life circumstances or overwhelming emotions

Precipitating issues which are often linked to self-harming include:

  • poor family and / or parental relationships
  • bullying
  • stress and worry – often school related
  • feeling isolated
  • problems related to sexuality
  • divorce
  • self-harm or suicide of a close friend or relative
  • problems related to race, culture or religion
  • low self-esteem
  • abuse: physical, sexual or emotional (both past and / or current)
  • unwanted pregnancy
  • bereavement
  • feeling of being rejected socially or within the family



Richardson, C. (2012). The Truth About Self-Harm: For Young People and Their Friends and Families [Booklet]. United Kingdom: Mental Health Foundation.

Segal, J. & Smith, M. (2015). Cutting and Self-Harm: Self-Injury Help, Support, and Treatment. Retrieved from: [Accessed on: 05 May 2015].