What is self-harm?
Self-harm is when people deliberately hurt themselves. It is not necessarily a suicide attempt, and may not mean the person wants to die. Self-harm includes deliberately cutting, burning, biting and hitting your body. The reasons why a person self-harms can differ, but they may be doing so to change how they are feeling when they are depressed or angry, or because they are frustrated or don’t know what else to do.
What to do in an emergency?
If someone has harmed themselves intentionally and is hurt seriously, it is important to get medical help. Call an ambulance (dial 911) right away.
You may want to support your friend by going with them to the hospital. This may help to reassure them.
At the hospital, after the person has been physically checked, they will usually be assessed by a mental health professional. In big hospitals, this person will probably be a psychiatrist. For more information about psychiatrists and other mental health professionals, you may want to check out the Get Help section of ReachOut.
When do I tell someone else?
If you are concerned about your friend’s safety, it is important to let someone like a counselor, teacher or youth worker know what is going on. These people should be able to help you make sure your friend stays safe.
If possible, it is a good idea to be honest with your friend, letting them know that you will have to let someone know if they tell you that they are harming themselves. If your friend chooses not to tell you things on that basis then that is their call. This way you are not being put in a situation where you feel like you are breaking their trust or risking them harm.
How can you help?
Supporting a friend who is self harming may be hard. Often the reasons why someone self-harms are complex and managing these reasons needs help from someone like a psychologist, psychiatrist or a counselor. Helping your friend might mean encouraging your friend to get help and then standing by them when they do seek help.
It may be helpful to encourage your friend to try some alternatives to self-harming. The following are a few things you might suggest:
- Punching a pillow or punching bag;
- Yell or sing loudly;
- Take a cold shower;
- Carry a token to remind you of something comforting or peaceful;
- Write in a journal;
- Color in coloring books;
- Make a phone list of people you can call when you want to self harm - and then use it!
- Plan activities for your most difficult time of day;
- Ask for help.
If you feel you need some advice on how to help your friend, you can call Your Life Your Voice at 1-800-448-3000, run by Boys Town (for everyone). They may be able to offer you support, advice, and encouragement. If you feel your friend is in serious crisis or is thinking about suicide, you may also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for advice.
Looking after yourself
Sometimes we can get so concerned about our friend that we may end up feeling stressed and anxious ourselves. If you are worried about your friend, you may find it helpful to share your concerns with someone you trust. If things start to become overwhelming it may help to take some time out. You may want to listen to some music, go for a walk, go shopping or hang out with other friends.
Last Reviewed July 6, 2009