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There are many misconceptions about self harm, but lots of people struggle with it and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. We bust some of the myths around self harm, and tell you how you can help yourself or someone else.

What is self harm?

Self harm is when you hurt yourself on purpose. You may do this as a way of coping with difficult feelings, or to release emotions that you don’t know how to express otherwise. Many people think of self harm as cutting, but it can mean any way of deliberately hurting or injuring yourself.

Who self harms?

If you self harm, you might feel that nobody else can understand what you’re going through. But self harm is very common. Although some people think of self harm as a, “girl thing”, both boys and girls self harm. It’s something that can affect anyone, no matter how old they are. Around 10% of young people have self harmed, so if this includes you, you’re not alone.

Why might someone self harm?

It can be hard to understand why someone might hurt themselves on purpose. If you self harm, you may not even understand yourself why you do it.

Everybody is different, and why one person self harms may not be why another person does. We all cope with our feelings in different ways. Some people may feel able to talk about their feelings to their family or friends, whereas other people may try to deal with their problems on their own.

When our emotions build up, we can become angry, overwhelmed, or sad. Some people self harm as a way of releasing these built up emotions. It can become a cycle where the person hurts himself or herself in order to feel better. Afterwards, they might feel ashamed of themselves, which can cause them to feel even more depressed, angry and overwhelmed.

Someone might also self harm because they feel, “bad” in some way, and as though they deserve to be punished. These kind of emotions might be hard for others to understand, but feel very real to the person experiencing them.

Although there are lots of reasons why someone might self harm, it’s common for people who self harm to:

Isn’t self harm just attention seeking?

This is a myth about self harm which can make it harder for people to reach out for help and support. Most people who self harm go to great lengths to hide their behaviour because they’re ashamed of it and are scared they’ll be judged.

Sometimes, people who self harm need attention, for example, if they need medical help because they’ve hurt themselves. Everyone who self harms deserves to be treated with kindness and respect, including by doctors and other medical professionals. And remember, there’s nothing wrong with wanting your feelings to be taken seriously and to be heard.

I self harm – how can I get help?

It might feel scary, but often the first step in helping yourself is talking to someone. This could be anyone that you trust and feel comfortable sharing with.

If you don’t feel ready to do that, you can start with one of the organisations listed to the left. Childline and The Mix have counsellors you can chat to online, too.

You can also make an appointment with your GP. They will keep what you tell them private unless they’re worried there’s a risk to you or someone else.

Self harm can also escalate and you may find more drastic ways to harm yourself- this can be really dangerous. You should never be put off seeking medical attention if you’ve harmed yourself.

Helping yourself

If you feel like self harming, there are ways that you can help reduce the urge:

  • Distract yourself - find something you can do for the next five minutes. Watch a video or read a blog. There are also some apps that you can download, such as “Calm Harm” or check out Mind’s, “I need urgent help” tool, which will walk you through some options. When those five minutes are up, try to keep going for another five
  • Write down your thoughts – writing down your thoughts and feelings can help you recognise a pattern to your triggers
  • Go for a walk – take yourself out of your environment and into a public place until the urges subside
  • Get a punch bag, or punch a pillow – if you’re feeling angry or overwhelmed, take it out on that, not you
  • Do something else which helps you to feel – such as squeezing an ice cube, pinging an elastic band against your wrist, or squeezing and hitting dough

If none of these things help, keep trying and find something that works for you. Don’t be too hard on yourself - it takes time to learn new habits and to feel better.

I’m worried about someone else. How can I help them?

You might have seen signs that someone is self harming. For example, your friend might be more withdrawn, have unexplained bruises, or wear long sleeves even when it’s hot.

It can be hard not to react with fear, even with anger. It’s okay to have your own feelings- you can explain how you feel to your friend, but let them know you’re here for them and don’t judge them. Offer to listen and encourage them to reach out for support from someone who can help them.

It’s important to know your own limits and understand that, even if your friend has confided in you, it doesn’t make you responsible for them. Put yourself first, and tell an adult if you need to.

Why I started to cut - one girl tells her self harm story

BBC Advice factfiles are here to help young people with a broad range of issues. They're based on advice from medical professionals, government bodies, charities and other relevant groups. Follow the links for more advice from these organisations. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites.

This page was last updated on 9 Oct 2017.