• Adam Rothwell

Understanding self-harm

Trigger warning: this blog contains information about self-harm and the affects this has. You can receive immediate support, in the UK, from the Samaritans by ringing 116 123.

Self-harm is still misunderstood in society. You may have heard people use the phrases 'attention seeking' or 'acting out', which are damaging to the people the comments are aimed at, and also to the hope of society ever growing in acceptance about self-harm and working to support those living with this way of coping.

You will notice I said 'way of coping'. There are different reason individuals harm themselves, but all are a reaction to the circumstances someone finds them self in. Reasons people self-harm include:

  • To release negative feelings such as stress, anger and tension.

  • To create physical pain if they feel numb.

  • To have a sense of control.

  • To express how they are feeling if they can't vocalise this.

Self-harm can also become quite addictive in it's nature and become hard to stop.


What constitutes as self-harm?

Just like the multiple reasons people self-harm, there are also many ways people do this. As a protective measure, I am not going to list different ways within this blog, but self harm is, on a simple level, a way of inflicting harm on the self physically in order to achieve a goal.

Less simple is the process of how this happens. For some people, self-harm becomes a daily part of life, and a way of coping, although it is not safe. Self-harm is something that provides a quick release or solution, but does not sort things in the long-term. This is why people need support to find other methods of coping.


How can I support someone I know who is self-harming?

It can be distressing to find out someone close to you has self-harmed, and you may worry about their safety. You can take the below steps to encourage the person to seek support.

  1. Try and be open about it with the person - it can be easier to not mention that you know and try to keep an eye on someone from a distance. The concern is that you may distress the person. However, speaking about it openly lets the person know you are there to listen to them and to help. If there is a group involved, say a family, it may be best to just have one person start this discussion so as not to overwhelm the person.

  2. Provide empathy and listen - There is a reason, deep down, that causes the person to hurt them self. They may not know fully what it is, but if you offer them your time and a listening ear, they may feel able to open up to you. Try to affirm how they feel, and there is no need to try find a positive, just try and feel how they are feeling, whether this is angry, lost or numb.

  3. Encourage the person to seek support - This may be through their GP, a Counsellor or another mental health professional. Self-harm is a coping mechanism and so it is helpful to have support to unbox the issues that lead to harm being done. Whilst the support from family and friends is invaluable, this is best provided by a professional.

  4. Don't try to get the person to agree not to self-harm - For some people, self-harm is the only release they are aware of to help them. By taking this away from them they are potentially in a vulnerable situation. A professional can discuss different ways of coping over a period of time, and hopefully also resolve concerns that underlie the harming. What you can do is try and make the person as safe as can be, so this might be encouraging them to clean wounds properly after harming. This mitigates risk whilst they seek support.

  5. Get support for yourself - Talking about highly emotive subjects can be draining, and can potentially impact your own mental health. Mental health professionals have people the talk to in a professional capacity to offload and it is important you have support too. If you are not comfortable with this being a friend or family member, it could be support from a counsellor, or a charity.


What support is there for someone who self-harms?

Whether you are reading this with someone else in mind, or you may be reading for yourself, please know there is support out there. I have categorised this into different levels.

Self help

This can be helpful to those who want to try and self-manage their self-harm and reduce the instances that this happens.

  • DistrACT app - easy, quick and discreet access to information and advice about self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

  • Calm Harm app - designed to help people resist or manage the urge to self-harm. It's private and password protected.

Professional support

I would recommend anyone to seek professional support; it can be beneficial to have support and guidance on what can be hard journey to stopping self-harm.

Contact your Doctor - They can make referrals for you to NHS services (in the UK), or to charities that support with a range of mental health difficulties.

Seek guidance from a counsellor/therapist - They will be able to work through concerns and issues in your life which may be causing you to self-harm. Many are also trained specifically to work with self-harm. You can find a counsellor online, by visiting Counselling Directory.

Support from charities or groups

There are many charities that support individuals through groups, therapy and information.

Finally, if you are reading this and need urgent support physically or emotionally, you need to seek urgent care via the NHS (in the UK) by ringing 999.


Adam Rothwell MBACP is a registered person-centred counsellor in private practice. He sees clients online and in person in the South Manchester, Stockport and Cheshire East areas of North West England.

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