People define self-harm in lots of different ways. Usually, self-harm is defined as someone deliberately hurting themselves without wanting to die. It is sometimes called deliberate self-injury or non-suicidal self-injury. Engaging in self-harm may not mean that someone wants to die. It is a behaviour that is used to cope with difficult or painful feelings.

Self-harm is relatively common. Research shows that about 1% of Australians have self-harmed within the last month and about 8% have self-harmed in their lifetime. Most people start self-harming as a teenager or young adult. It can continue for many years and become a habit that is difficult to stop.

Examples of self-harm may include:

  • Cutting the skin with sharp objects
  • Taking an overdose of medication or drinking poison
  • Burning the skin
  • Hitting the body with fists or another object
  • Punching walls or other objects
  • Scratching or picking the skin, resulting in bleeding or welts

Contributing factors

People from all different backgrounds, lifestyles and ages may self-harm as a way of coping with problems, including men and women.

The following are some factors associated with self-harm:

  • A crisis or recent difficult life event (e.g. death of a loved one, relationship breakdown, difficulties at home or school, recent abuse or violence)
  • Depression, anxiety or another mental health issue
  • Misusing alcohol or drugs
  • Trauma or abuse in childhood
  • Physical illness or disability

Reasons people might self-harm

People who self-harm find it difficult to talk about their feelings so they may use self-harm to express their emotions. They often hide their behaviour (e.g. wearing long sleeves, covering scars) and are not usually trying to gain attention or manipulate others.

Self-harm is usually not the same as a suicide attempt. However, self-harm may sometimes lead to a serious medical emergency. Also, people who self-harm are more likely to have had suicidal thoughts or to have previously attempted suicide, and over time may be at increased risk for of dying by suicide. If life is in danger get help. Call 000 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Self-harm can be linked to a mental illness such as anxiety, depression and others. It is important to get help for any mental health problems in order to help with the self-harm.

Self-harm may be used to:

  • Deal with or stop negative emotions or pain, such as feeling sad, angry, upset, guilty or scared
  • Release tension or a build-up of emotions
  • Relieve feelings of loneliness or isolation
  • Punish themselves for something they’ve done, or something perceived as their fault
  • Feel “alive” or “real” or combat feelings of numbness
  • Feel more in control of their life
  • Communicate to people that you need some support when you feel unable to use words.

Dealing with Self-harming yourself

Talk to someone you trust – Although it can be hard, it’s important to find someone to talk to about your feelings and your self-harming behaviours. Try and explain why you self-harm and if it is someone close to you make sure they know that it’s not their fault.If you don’t feel comfortable talking to a family member or friend, you can try your doctor, a counsellor, teacher or call a crisis line, like Lifeline 13 11 14.

Recognise when you do and don’t self-harm – It can be helpful to identify the usual times, places and feelings you have when you self-harm and the times when you are least likely to do it. Recognising the things that trigger self-harm can help you avoid those situations.

Distract yourself – When you feel the need to self-harm, it can help to wait 15 minutes and see if the urge goes away. Try to focus on other things, such as taking some deep breaths, taking a shower, reading a book or having something to eat or drink. Try things that take your mind off negative thoughts and keep you busy in a positive way.

Write it down – Keeping a diary to express your emotions can help you vent your feelings and cope better with negative thoughts. It can also help you to recognise the feelings that lead to self-harm.

Get Help – Visit your GP. They can help you to find someone who specialises in helping people who self-harm, such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, counsellor or other health professional.

How to help someone who self-harms

Supporting someone who self-harms can be tough. You may find it difficult to understand why they do it and find it upsetting or distressing.

Here are a few tips for helping someone who has harmed themselves:

When you talk to the person, try to be calm, open and honest. Try not to be judgmental, shocked or take their behaviour personally. Try and see the situation from their point of view and understand why they engage in self-harm.

Let the person know that you support them and listen to them express their feelings.

Help the person make a plan about what to do when they feel like self-harming. This will help the person feel supported, safe and more in control of their situation.

Encourage the person to get support from health professionals like their GP or mental health professional and offer to go with them to their appointments if they are scared or uncomfortable.

Helping someone who self-harms can be draining and upsetting, so get support and look after your physical and emotional needs too.