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Mental Health Now factsheet - self-harm

What is self-harm?

Self-harm is the term used to describe when someone has deliberately hurt themselves.  It is a coping strategy to help manage overwhelming emotions and control feelings of stress, helplessness and powerlessness. It may also be a person’s attempt to feel something when feeling disconnected from emotions or themselves. Sometimes people harm themselves because of self-hate, or because they want to punish themselves. 
Self-harm is not the same thing as attempted suicide, and may actually be a way to stay alive. Self-harm is not attention-seeking or a mental illness, but a sign of internal stress or distress. 

Ways in which people may self-harm (not exhaustive)

  • Cutting or scratching themselves
  • Burning themselves, for example, with flames, chemicals
  • Hitting themselves or throwing their body against something that will hurt
  • Compulsively pulling out hair
  • Swallowing harmful liquids or solids, or deliberately taking overdoses of drugs or medication
  • Interfering with the healing of wounds
  • Risk taking behaviour, such as getting into fights, driving too fast

Treatment and recovery

Self-harm is often a sign of an underlying mental health issue, like depression, anxiety, and psychosis.  The person should see their GP and be offered a comprehensive assessment by a mental health professional to assess for underlying mental health issues and for appropriate treatments to be offered. These treatments can include 3-12 sessions of psychological therapy. Medication may be prescribed for an underlying mental health issue, but not for the self-harm alone. 

It may not be realistic for the person to stop their self-harming behaviour immediately. It would not be helpful to take away their only coping strategy. In which case, focus on harm reduction, for example, by using less harmful methods, and developing new coping strategies. 

Supporting people with self-harm issues in the workplace

Approach the person privately, and directly, but sensitively. Express your concerns about the person. Self-harm can be difficult to talk about so don’t pressure the person to talk about things they are not ready to discuss. 

Refer to the workplace’s Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), and/or the person’s GP. If the person is in hospital for any injuries, encourage them to ask for a mental health assessment. 

Depending on the nature of the injury, medical attention may be needed. Also watch out for signs for suicidal thoughts and/ or behaviours, or if the person has experienced a traumatic event which they need support with. 

Where to find out more