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What is self-harm?

Self-harm is when someone causes themselves a deliberate harm or injury, often in a regular or ongoing manner. Usually, people who harm themselves are suffering a lot of emotional pain that can be hard to cope with and understand, for both the person self-harming as well as for those close to them.

Why and how self-harm happens

Some people use self-harm as an emotional outlet, where they try to relieve, control or express pain and confusion. Self-harm is often a secret behaviour, which is performed alone. However, some young people harm themselves with others.

Self-harm and young people

Being a teenager can be a confusing time and has been described as being like 'one big roller-coaster ride'. Although there are many reasons why teenagers harm themselves, each person's story is unique. Self-harm can be a way for a person to:

  • cope with emotional pain
  • try to manage feelings associated with difficult or confusing changes
  • punish themselves
  • feel connected to something (even pain!)
  • try to escape from unwanted thoughts/feelings
  • attempt to regain control over their life
  • fit in with peers
  • rebel against authority

Getting help for self-harm

Teens who self-harm tell us that they tend to struggle with positive ways to manage their moods, feelings, and reactions to stressful events. Therefore, it is important to reach out to someone who can help explore why you are harming yourself and develop more positive ways for dealing with your experiences, relationships and emotions.

You might like to speak with:

  • Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800
  • a school or university counsellor, nurse or teacher
  • a social worker or psychologist
  • your doctor
  • a youth worker linked to local council or community centers

Important: If you are facing a medical emergency from self-harm call an ambulance (000) or if you can, take the person to the emergency department of the local hospital. While most people who self-harm do not intend to kill themselves, it can sometimes have fatal results.

The helping process

Getting help isn't a ‘quick fix’ but it can help you have a healthier and happier life. Feeling guilty, ashamed, angry or ‘out of control’ can make seeking help seem scary and pointless! However, by reaching out for help, you learn new skills to manage your emotions and negative thinking. You can also build on your strengths, which you will be able to use in all areas of your life.

Seeking help can help you:

  • deal with stress
  • develop skills for challenging self-defeating thoughts
  • learn positive relationship skills such as communication, problem solving, conflict resolution, assertiveness and resisting peer pressure
  • develop skills to manage difficult relationships
  • deal with painful and overwhelming feelings
  • reduce or replace self-harming with more positive coping strategies over time

It can be a great experience to have your voice heard in a safe space. You can talk about your feelings, goals, preferences, expectations and any specific changes you want to make in your life. That's why it is important for you to feel you can trust the person you choose to talk with.

Getting support from friends, family and people close to you

self-harmIt can be useful to talk with and seek support from your friends and family. Friends and family can be a source of added support and may help generate creative and real solutions to problems. Many young people also find it easier to talk to friends rather than parents or health professionals.

However, some people may not know what to do to help or may not understand. If you don't get a positive response when you talk to someone close to you, try to remember that it is not because you have done something wrong. Remember as well, that while your friends and family may be able to provide support and encouragement, it is probably also best to reach out for professional help.

Things to try to help you manage your emotions

Young people have told us that the below things have helped them manage their emotions:

  • Talk with someone - to mum, dad, your siblings or other family members or close friends. If you need someone to talk to, you can call Kids Helpline 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on 1800 55 1800
  • Do things with your friends - share things you enjoy, like visiting others, going to the movies or shopping
  • Try keeping a journal - writing can be a positive way to express your feelings
  • Get exercise - go for a run, take an exercise class, ride a bike. It helps burn off excess energy and can release endorphins (happy hormones)
  • Find opportunities to work creatively - either at home or at an art workshop or community centre, to have some fun and allow imaginative expression
  • Singing, dancing and music - these are all activities which can bring relaxation and joy as well as an opportunity for emotional expression
  • Learning and practice relaxation techniques - for example, controlled breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, yoga

And finally...

It is important to remember that self-harm is not the only way to help with emotional pain, and there are less destructive ways of dealing with pain. If you need someone to talk to about self-harm or anything else, you can always call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, or use our web or email counselling service.

For more information on self-harm, visit the web pages below:


Hawton, K., & Rodham, K. (2006). By their own young hand: Deliberate self-harm and suicidal ideas in adolescents. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Nasser, M. (2004). Dying to live: Eating disorders and self-harm behaviour in a cultural context. In J.L. Levitt, R.A. Sansone, & Cohn, L. (Eds.), Self-harm behaviour and eating disorders: Dynamics, assessment, and treatment (pp. 15-31). New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Walsh, B. W. (2006). Treating self-injury: A practical guide. New York: Guilford Press.

Whitlock, L. (2008). Non-suicidal injury and recovery: What students say about why they started, how they stopped, and what they learned along the way. Workshop presented at the Creating Healthy Community Conference, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. MI.

Whitlock, J., Ells, G., Cummings, N., & Purington, A. (2007). Non-suicidal self-injury in college populations: mental health provider assessment of prevalence and need. Unpublished Manualscript.

Whitlock, J., & Knox, K. (2007). The relationship between suicide and self-injury in a young adolescent population. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 161 (7), 634-640.

Whitlock, J., Meuhlenkamp, J., & Eckenrode, J. (2006). Variation is non-suicidal self-injury: Identification and features of latend classes in a college population in emerging adults. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 37(4), 407-417.

Reviewed: January 2015