Self-harm - medical information

Self-harm is not ‘just attention-seeking' - people self-harm because they are in pain and trying to cope.

They could also be trying to show that something is wrong. They need to be taken seriously.

Causes of self-harm

  • Self-harm is a term used when someone injures or harms themselves on purpose rather than by accident.
  • Common examples include `overdosing' (self-poisoning), hitting, cutting or burning oneself, pulling hair or picking skin, or self-strangulation. 
  • It can also include taking illegal drugs and excessive amounts of alcohol. 
  • Self-harm is always a sign of something being seriously wrong.
  • Self-harm is a way of dealing with very difficult feelings that build up inside. 

People say different things about why they do it

  • Some say that they have been feeling desperate about a problem and don't know where to turn for help.
  • They feel trapped and helpless. Self-injury helps them to feel more in control.
  • Some people talk of feelings of anger or tension that get bottled up inside, until they feel like exploding.
  • Self-injury helps to relieve the tension that they feel.
  • Feelings of guilt or shame may also become unbearable.
  • Self-harm is a way of punishing oneself.
  • Some people try to cope with very upsetting experiences, such as trauma or abuse, by convincing themselves that the upsetting event(s) never happened.
  • These people sometimes suffer from feelings of 'numbness' or 'deadness'.
  • They say that they feel detached from the world and their bodies, and that self-injury is a way of feeling more connected and alive.
  • A proportion of young people who self-harm do so because they feel so upset and overwhelmed by difficulties that they wish to end their lives by committing suicide.
  • Often, the decision to attempt suicide is made quickly without thinking.
  • At the time, many people just want their problems to disappear, and have no idea how to get help.
  • They feel as if the only way out is to kill themselves.

Symptoms of self-harm

  • Changes in behaviour that present as the young person being upset, withdrawn or irritable. Self-injury is often kept secret but there may be clues, such as refusing to wear short sleeves or to take off clothing for sports.

Treatments for self harm

  • Encourage students to let you know if one of their friends is in trouble, upset, or shows signs of harming themselves.
  • Friends often worry about betraying a confidence and you may need to explain that self-harm can endanger their lives.
  • For this reason, it should never be kept secret.

Living with self-harm

An expert explains why young people may self-harm, and describes some of the different forms it can take.

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