Are you a victim of self-harm?

Understanding Self-Harm

What is Self-Harm?

Self-harm, also known as self-injury, or self-mutilation occurs when someone intentionally harms themselves as a way of expressing or dealing with emotional distress and pain.

Examples of self-harm include:

  • Cutting yourself with a razor blade, knife, or other sharp object;
  • Hitting yourself or banging your head;
  • Punching or throwing yourself against walls or other hard objects;
  • Burning yourself with cigarettes, matches, candles, or hot water;
  • Pulling out your hair;
  • Poking objects into body openings;
  • Swallowing poisonous substances or inedible objects;
  • Intentionally preventing wounds from healing.

Self-harm can also include less obvious ways of hurting yourself like binge drinking, taking drugs, having unsafe sex, or committing illegal acts.

Who Self-Harms?

Self-harm is most common in adolescents and young adults, usually first appearing between the ages of 12 and 24, but self-harm can affect people of any age.

 You’re more likely to self-harm if you’re:

  • female;
  • in prison;
  • a veteran of the armed forces;
  • gay, lesbian, or bisexual;
  • a survivor of physical, emotional or sexual abuse during childhood;
  • living with a mental health issue;
  • abusing drugs or alcohol;
  • a friend of someone who self-harms.

Why Do People Self-Harm?

Research has shown that people who self-harm are motivated by a wide variety of environmental factors that cause severe emotional distress and suffering.  Self-harm itself is not a psychological illness, but it is often triggered by common psychological disorders including borderline personality disorder, depression, eating disorders, anxiety, and PTSD.

Common reasons people self-harm:

  • to cope with feelings of sadness, self-loathing, loneliness, guilt, rage, or hopelessness;
  • to punish themselves;
  • to feel alive, instead of numb or dead inside;
  • to distract themselves or to alter the focus of their attention;
  • to create a sense of control over their life;
  • to communicate or document feelings they can’t otherwise articulate;
  • to release the tension of overwhelming thoughts.

Some people that self-harm plan it in advance, others do it on the spur of the moment.  Some people will self-harm only once or twice, others will develop a long-time habit.  Regardless, all incidents of self-harm must be taken seriously.  If someone is hurting themselves intentionally, they have an increased risk of suicide and unintentional death.

What are the Warning Signs of Self-Harm?

People who self-harm often hide their behaviour, embarrassed and ashamed of their actions or scared of what people might think. Because clothing can hide physical injuries, and emotional turmoil and detachment are often regarded as just normal teenage angst, self-harm can be difficult to detect.

Self-harm red flags include:

  • unexplained wounds or scars usually on the wrists, arms, chest, stomach, and thighs;
  • frequent “accidents” or “clumsiness” to explain wounds and bruising;
  • wearing long sleeves or long pants at all times, even in warm weather;
  • cutting instruments like razor blades, knives, needles, and glass shards in the person’s belongings;
  • blood stains on clothing, towels, or bedding; or blood-soaked tissues;
  • detachment and social isolation.

If you’re worried a family member or friend is hurting themselves, it’s important to open up a dialogue. Ask them how they’re doing and be prepared to listen to the answer without judging or being critical. Let them know that self-harm is not uncommon, and that there is no shame in getting help. Concentrate on their emotional needs instead of their physical actions and offer your unconditional support.

How Can I Stop Self-Harming?

Self-harm is a way of dealing with overwhelming feelings of emotional pain and stressful situations.  If you’re going to stop, you need develop alternative ways of coping when you feel like cutting or hurting yourself.

Alternative Coping Techniques

If you self-harm to express pain and intense emotions, you could:

  • paint, draw, or scribble on a big piece of paper with red ink or paint;
  • start a journal in which to express your feelings;
  • compose a poem or song to say what you feel;
  • write down any negative feelings and then rip the paper up;
  • listen to music that expresses what you’re feeling.

If you self-harm to calm and soothe yourself, you could:

  • take a bath or hot shower;
  • pet or cuddle with a dog or cat;
  • wrap yourself in a warm blanket;
  • massage your neck, hands, and feet;
  • listen to calming music.

If you self-harm because you feel disconnected or numb, you could:

  • call a friend – you don’t have to talk about self-harm;
  • take a cold shower;
  • hold an ice cube in the crook of your arm or leg;
  • chew something with a strong taste, like chili peppers, garlic, or a grapefruit peel;
  • go online to a self-help website, chat room, or message board.

If you self-harm to release tension or vent anger, you could:

  • exercise vigorously – run, dance, jump rope, or hit a punching bag;
  • punch a cushion or mattress or scream into your pillow;
  • squeeze a stress ball or squish Play-Doh;
  • rip something up;
  • make some noise – play an instrument, bang on pots and pans.

What Treatment Options are Available?

It’s important to know that there is treatment available if you want to stop.  If you’re ready to get help for self-harm the first step is to confide in another person.  Choose a trusted family member, friend or medical professional who can help you seek out the help you need.

There are several kinds of treatment options recommended for self-harm:

  • Psychodynamic Therapy – focuses on understanding the influence of the past on the present.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – treats problems by modifying dysfunctional emotions, behaviors, and thoughts.
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy – teaches new skills to manage painful emotions and conflict in relationships.
  • Group Therapy – emotional support and practical advice in a professional-lead, group setting.


If you’re in crisis and are unsure who to turn to for help, call Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868, or Canada’s Suicide Prevention Service, 1-833-456-4566.  Both hotlines are available 27/7 and offer information and advice about self-harm.

For more information about how you can help a loved one who self harms, speak to a mental health professional or visit Self-Injury Outreach and Support’s website  SIOS is a collaboration between University of Guelph and McGill University.


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