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Self Harm Self-harm is a destructive coping mechanism for dealing with psychological problems, such as severe anxiety or depression. It involves the deliberate act of injuring oneself as a means of coping with emotional issues. Physical pain can alter the person’s mood state to help them cope with their emotions.

Self harming behaviour is generally not a suicide attempt.  It is an attempt to make the person feel better and more connected to their environment or the people around them. In some cases, a person may self-harm in an attempt to repress or avoid suicidal feelings.

Why do people start harming themselves?

It could be their way of dealing with:

  • Hopelessness
  • Overwhelmed by problems
  • Low self-esteem
  • Loneliness, disconnection from family, friends and the environment.
  • Anger
  • Guilt
  • Lack of personal control
  • Poor body image
  • Self-hatred
  • Post traumatic stress disorder
  • Strong feelings of anxiety or depression
  • Counteraction to emotional numbness
  • A response to physical, sexual or emotional abuse

How can you help someone who’s self-harming?

If you witness a loved one self-harming, try hard to control your emotional response. Yelling, crying or becoming hysterical will only make your loved one more stressed, which can reinforce their self-harming behaviour. Suggestions include:

  • Acting in a neutral way.
  • If necessary, take them to a more private place.
  • Help them to administer first aid to their injuries.
  • If their injuries are severe, take them to the nearest hospital emergency department for treatment. Try not to overreact. If a person is self-harming it does not necessarily mean they are suicidal.
  • Don’t label them as ‘attention seeking’, this behaviour is a genuine cry for help.
  • Be there. Be kind. Be sensitive.
  • Listen carefully and try to understand.
  • Don’t judge, lecture, or blame the person.
  • Reach out to someone else who can help if you’re not sure what to do.
  • Seek professional help for yourself and for them.

Even if the thought of the person self-harming causes you to feel uncomfortable, try to understand what the issues behind the feelings may be and how you can support that person to find more positive ways of coping with their pain.

Coping Strategies for the Self-Harmer are:

  • Counselling
  • Regular exercise
  • Stress-management
  • Personal expression through writing, painting or music
  • Relaxation therapy
  • Yoga and meditation
  • Avoiding high risk situations
  • Social and community support networks
  • Improving social skills such as assertiveness training
  • For more information, discuss aversion therapy with your therapist.

Self harm can be through direct and indirect means.

Examples of direct self harm is:

  • Cutting the skin with knives or any sharp object
  • Burning the skin
  • Hitting the body with an object or fists (like punching the wall)
  • Deliberately falling when doing something like extreme sports
  • Picking at skin
  • Swallowing pills or sharp objects
  • Pulling at hair

Indirect self harm examples are:

  • Alcoholism
  • Being non-treatment compliant
  • Failing to seek required medical help
  • Eating disorders
  • Drug addictions

What are the treatment options?

  • Psychological intervention and/or counselling
  • Learning other forms of effective coping techniques
  • Understanding and support from family, friends and doctors
  • Medical treatment for the physical injuries
  • Until the self-harming behaviour is under control, consider leaving adequate supplies of first aid equipment in the home, such as bandages and antiseptic solution.
Last Updated: 3 Feb, 2009

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