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Self-harm means any behaviour which involves the deliberate causing of pain or injury to oneself — usually as an extreme way of trying to cope with distressing or painful feelings.
Self-harm includes cutting, burning or hitting oneself, binge-eating or starvation, or repeatedly putting oneself in dangerous situations. It can also involve abuse of drugs or alcohol, including overdosing on prescription medications.
Self-harm is often a response to feelings of extreme psychological distress or emotional pain. It may provide short-term relief from these feelings. It may be an attempt to express or even control them briefly. It does not resolve them, however, and can become a compulsive and dangerous activity.
While people who self-harm may not intend to end their lives, the consequences of this risky behaviour can be fatal, and it needs careful assessment and care by a health professional.
As well as being physically dangerous, self-harm is often a sign that the person needs help for a mental health problem associated with the behaviour. This might be an anxiety disorder, depression or some other condition. It is therefore very important to see a GP or other health professional for an assessment and diagnosis, and to discuss a treatment plan. Treating the underlying causes will help make a long-term difference to reducing and stopping the impulse to self-harm.
Treatment is likely to involve seeing a psychologist who is an expert in this area, and will know how to best help the person, as well as help them to help themselves.
It’s a good idea to prepare for seeing a doctor by talking to a trusted person about the self-harming behaviour. This might be a family member or friend, or a suitable person at school or work. It’s also helpful to request a longer appointment, so there is time to talk, and take along some simple notes – for example, detailing how long the self-harming has been going on, and any other feelings or events which may be associated with it.
Because self-harming behaviour is risky and possibly life-threatening, do not hesitate to call emergency services on 000 if necessary.
Related: How to help in a crisis
It can be hard for people who self-harm to stop it by themselves. That’s why it’s important to talk to someone and see a doctor. It can help to try alternatives to self-harm which can relieve distress in the short term. These include:
These are not solutions to self-harm but can be useful as short-term alternatives while receiving treatment, and should be discussed with the treating doctor or psychologist.
People who self-harm may be secretive or feel ashamed about their behaviour. It helps to talk calmly and non-judgmentally about your concerns.
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Lifeline (24-hour crisis telephone counselling) 13 11 14
Suicide Callback Service 1300 659 467
Call 000 for urgent medical attention or police attendance
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