Word on Health

Word on Self Harm

We are grateful to the Royal College of Psychiatrists for their input on this weeks radio report (which you can hear again via the audio player at the bottomm of this page). We are also thankful for the use of the support information below taken from their excellent leaflet on Self Harm.

Self-harm can be difficult to talk about – and hard for other people to understand.

What is self-harm? You hurt or harm yourself – on purpose. This can be for any reason, in any situation, and in a number of ways, such as:

  • taking too many tablets – an overdose
  • cutting yourself
  • burning yourself
  • banging your head or throw yourself against something hard
  • punching yourself
  • sticking things in your body
  • swallowing things that shouldn’t be swallowed. 

When someone self-harms, they are usually feeling very emotional and distressed. Many describe their self-harm as a way to release overwhelming emotions. Some people plan it in advance, others act on the spur of the moment. Though some people self-harm only once or twice, others do it regularly – and it can become hard to stop.

There are indirect ways of harming yourself. This could be using alcohol or drugs too much and have accidents as a result, having unsafe sex, or the physical harm involved in the bingeing or vomiting of someone with eating disorder. These are not seen as self-harm in the same way.

How common is self-harm? About 1 in 10 young people will self-harm at some point, but it can happen at any age. 

This is probably an under-estimate because the research is mostly based on people who go to hospital or their GP after harming themselves. And many do not. 

Many people do not seek help after self-harm. Some types, like cutting, are more secret and less likely to be noticed. 

In a large study of self-harming adults in hospital, 80% had overdosed and around 15% had cut themselves. In the community, cutting is probably a more common way of self-harming than taking an overdose. 

What makes people self-harm? Many people who harm themselves are struggling with intolerable distress or unbearable situations – and they will often have struggled like this for some time before they self-harm. 

Common problems include:

  • feeling depressed.
  • feeling bad about yourself.
  • physical or sexual abuse .
  • relationship problems with partners, friends, and family. 
  • being unemployed, or having difficulties at work. 

You are more likely to harm yourself if you feel:

  • That people don’t understand you or listen to you properly.
  • Hopeless. 
  • Isolated, alone. 
  • That you have no power or control over your life. 

Many people who self-harm may also have alcohol or drug use problems, though this is not always the case. 

Getting help. A lot of people who self-harm don't ask for help. You might be aware that you have some serious problems, but don't feel that you can tell anyone – so you don’t talk about it. It can sometimes feel as though self-harm is not a major problem – just a way to cope with life. 

Danger signs You are most likely to harm yourself badly if you:

  • use a dangerous or violent method.
  • self-harm regularly. 
  • have existing mental health problems. 

If you think you may harm yourself, don’t suffer in silence – tell someone about how you feel. The best place to start might be a health professional, like your GP.

What help is available?  Talking with a professional like your GP or a mental health professional. There are several one-to-one talking treatments can help, such as:

  • Problem solving therapy 
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy 
  • Psychodynamic psychotherapy
  • Talking with a non-professional 

You may find it helpful just to talk anonymously to someone else about what is happening to you. Knowing that someone else knows what you are going through can help you to feel less alone with your problems. It can also help you to think about your difficulties more clearly – maybe even see new ways of approaching your problems. You can do this online or by telephone. Some helplines are listed at the end of this leaflet.

Self-help groups. This is group of people who all might think about harming themselves from time to time, that meet regularly to give each other practical and emotional support. Sharing your problems in a group can help you to feel less alone - others in the group will almost certainly have had similar experiences.

Help with relationships 

Self-harm can often happen during a crisis in a close relationship. It may be helpful to get some advice and support regarding the relationship. This may be a difficult process, but could be better in the long-term.

Family meetings

A family meeting with a therapist can help. This can help family members to talk to each other more clearly – and to listen better. This can help other family member to understand how you are feeling – and can help to tackle areas of stress and conflict. This may not be appropriate if, for instance, you have been the victim of abuse from a family member.

Group therapy 

This is different from a self-help group. A professional will lead (or facilitate) the group to help the members to deal with problems they share.

What works best? There isn't much good evidence yet of which therapies work well for people who self-harm or are considering doing so. 

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) seems to be useful, as is a combination of problem-solving therapy and CBT. A health professional will make suggestions based on your individual problems, your preference, and on what is available locally.

How can I help myself? When you want to harm yourself

Remember that the feelings of self-harm will go away after a while. If you can cope with your distress without self-harming for a time, it may get easier over the next few hours. 

Self-help and support

Childline: Free national helpline for young people, free confidential advice on all sorts of problems: 0800 1111.

Samaritans: Telephone and email support for anyone ; 08457 90 90 90; ROI 116 123; email: jo@samaritans.org.

PAPYRUS HOPELine UK: a professionally staffed helpline providing support, practical advice and information to young people worried about themselves, and to anyone concerned that a young person may harm themselves. Tel: 0800 068 41 41.

Get Connected: offers help by telephone and email for people under 25 who self-harm. Tel: 0808 808 4994.

Selfharm.co.uk: a project dedicated to supporting young people who are affected by self-harm. Email: info@selfharm.co.uk.

Self Injury Support: provides a young women's text and email service, any age helpline for women who self-harm, UK-wide listings for self-harm support and self-help tools. Email: info@selfinjurysupport.org.uk.

Listen to this weeks radio report

All material on this website is provided for your information only and may not be construed as medical advice or instruction. No action or inaction should be taken based solely on the contents of this information; instead, readers should consult appropriate health professionals on any matter relating to their health and well-being.