Self Harm

Self-harm is a way of expressing very deep distress. Often, people don’t know why they self-harm. It’s a means of communicating what can’t be put into words or even into thoughts and has been described as an inner scream. Afterwards, people feel better able to cope with life again, for a while.

Self-harm is a broad term. People may injure or poison themselves by scratching, cutting or burning their skin, by hitting themselves against objects, taking a drug overdose, or swallowing or putting other things inside themselves. It may also take less obvious forms, including unnecessary risks, staying in an abusive relationship, developing an eating problem (such as anorexia or bulimia), being addicted to alcohol or drugs, or someone simply not looking after their own emotional or physical needs.

These responses may help someone to cope with feelings that threaten to overwhelm them; painful emotions, such as rage, sadness, emptiness, grief, self-hatred, fear, loneliness and guilt. These can be released through the body, where they can be seen and dealt with. Self-harm may serve a number of purposes at the same time. It may be a way of getting the pain out, of being distracted from it, of communicating feelings to somebody else, and of finding comfort. It can also be a means of self-punishment or an attempt to gain some control over life. Because they may feel ashamed, afraid, or worried about other people’s reactions, people who self-harm often conceal what they are doing rather than draw attention to it.

Self-harm can be about trying to stay alive – a coping mechanism for survival, and to escape from emotional pain. The majority of people who self-harm are not suicidal, but a small minority will intentionally attempt suicide. Some suicides resulting from self-harming behaviour may be accidental, occurring when someone has hurt themself more than they intended to.

Because it can be hard to understand, healthcare professionals, friends and relatives sometimes mistakenly regard people who self-harm with mistrust or fear and see their behaviour as attention-seeking and manipulative. If someone you know self-harms, you may feel helpless when faced with their wounds; your own feelings and fears about the situation may cause you to blame them instead of supporting them. Bear in mind they may be using the only way they can to communicate their plight and to get the attention, care and comfort they need. However upsetting it may be for you, it doesn’t necessarily mean this is their intention.

Whether people have deep wounds or slight injuries, the problem they represent should always be taken very seriously. The size of the wound isn’t a measure of the size of the conflict inside.

(information taken from


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