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Why do people self-harm?

There's no one reason why one person self-harms and another doesn't. Some people may even self-harm and have no awareness of what they're doing, known as dissociation. At the root of much self harm, though, is deep emotional pain.

sad girl

The reasons are complex, but very real.

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Self-harm can affect anyone

There’s no such thing as a typical person who self-harms. It can affect anyone of any age, background or race, regardless of whether they are an extrovert or an introvert. In fact, a 2012 survey of young people showed that 86% of respondents said they had injured themselves, with over half saying they did it regularly.

“Around friends and the public you may seem OK, but it’s not like you want to go around looking depressed and feeling sorry for yourself,” says JD, 17. “You feel different inside to how you show yourself on the outside and you do put on a bit of a front, so you can’t just look at someone and say ‘they self-harm’.”

Some young people self-harm on a regular basis, while others do it just once or a few times. For some people it’s part of coping with a specific problem and they stop once the problem is resolved. Other people self-harm for years whenever certain kinds of pressures and problems arise.

Vulnerable groups

Some people may be more likely to self-harm than others. These include:

Overall, women are more likely to self-harm than men – this is most evident in adolescence. However, men are more likely to self-injure and women are more likely to self-poison. The National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) has outlined other groups in society that may be more prone to self-harm, including people with learning disabilities, and prisoners – as many as 10% of whom will self-harm during their term.

Research also suggests that drinking a lot of alcohol can significantly increase the risk of self-harm in young people who are already feeling stressed or depressed – up to half of people who are seen in A&E following self-harm will have used alcohol.

What causes self-harm?

If you’ve got mental health or problems, such as depression or severe anxiety, you have a higher risk of self-harming. But if you do self-harm, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a serious mental illness – it may just be that you’re feeling alone, isolated, stressed, frustrated, or angry about issues out of your control. Such issues might include one or more of the following:

Purpose of self-harm

Some people harm themselves because they don’t know how else to cope with pressures from family, school and peer groups. Extreme feelings such as fear, anger, guilt, shame, helplessness, self-hatred, unhappiness, depression or despair can build up over time. When these feelings become unbearable, self-harm can be a way of dealing with them.

Reasons young people have given for their self-harm include:

  • When the level of emotional pressure becomes too high it acts as a safety valve – a way of relieving the tension
  • Cutting makes the blood take away the bad feelings
  • Pain can make you feel more alive when feeling numb or dead inside
  • Punishing oneself in response to feelings of shame or guilt
  • When it’s too difficult to talk to anyone, it’s a form of communication about unhappiness and a way of acknowledging the need for help
  • Self-harm gives a sense of control that’s missing elsewhere in life

Some people self-harm with the intention of ending their life or they may be unsure about whether they want to survive, for example, taking an overdose and leaving it to fate to decide the outcome.

Sorting self-harm fact from fiction

Many organisations and health professionals are calling for more information in hospitals and schools to tackle the stigma around the issue of self-harming, which can often put young people off seeking help and advice. In the Samaritans’ report Youth Matters – A Cry for Help, 43% of young people knew someone who has self-harmed, but one-in-four had no idea what to say to a friend who was self-harming or feeling suicidal. Most worryingly, 41% of young people believed that self-harm is selfish and 55% think that it is stupid.

Even though self-harm can provide immediate, temporary relief it does not deal with the issues underlying the distress. Often it’s not easy for someone to admit that they have a problem, let alone to confide in anyone about what they are doing. If you’re worried about self-harm in any way, there are lots of people who can offer you help and guidance so you don’t have to deal with it on your own.

Next Steps

  • Under 19? You can get confidential help with self-harm from ChildLine – either over the phone or through an online chat.
  • If you have questions about self-harm you can use selfharm.co.uk's Ask a question service. Or look at the questions that have already been answered.
  • Anyone can contact the Samaritans on their 24-hour helpline to talk things through. 08457 90 90 90
  • TESS text and email support service runs Monday to Friday from 7pm to 9pm for girls and women aged under 25. Text them on 0780 047 2908.
  • Feeling stressed? Hatch a Stresshead and relax as you chase your very own pet peeve around until you catch it and smash it.
  • Visit Madly in Love to discuss mental health and relationships, share stories and get support and advice.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

By Julia Pearlman

Updated on 25-Sep-2012

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