What is self-harm?
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.
Why do people harm themselves?
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.
How do you get help if you self-harm?
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. See also How to help in a crisis.
Are there alternatives to self-harm?
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:
- Delay – for example, put it off until you have spoken to someone
- Distract – for example, go for walk, play a game
- Divert – for example, find an activity which has a similar effect to self-harm, but without causing injury, such as punching a pillow, drawing on arm instead of cutting, squeezing an icecube
- Deep breathing – or other relaxation method.
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.
How do I help someone who self-harms?
People who self-harm may be secretive or feel ashamed about their behaviour. It helps to talk calmly and non-judgmentally about your concerns therefore.
- Encourage the person to see a doctor or other health professional about the self-harming.
- Suggest options for getting help, rather than directing the person what to do.
- Do not hesitate to call emergency services on 000 if you think the person is at risk of serious injury.
- Remember that you cannot stop someone from self-harming and it is not your responsibility when they do. You can only do your best to encourage them to get help.
Where to call for help
- Emergency services 000
- Local hospital, Psychiatric Emergency Team
- Lifeline 13 11 14
- Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800
Information and advice on mental illness
- Contact SANE Help Centre on 1800 18 7263
How do I find out more?
It is important to ask your doctor about any concerns you have. SANE Australia also produces a range of easy-to-read publications and multimedia resources on mental illness.