Sad woman concerned about self harm

What is self-harm?

Self-harm is the act of intentionally hurting or inflicting damage to yourself. It a sensitive and often difficult topic for many people to talk about.

The reasons why people engage in self-harm are usually quite complex. Even so, in most cases it relates to intense negative feelings or emotional pain.

Self-harm is also referred to as self-injury, self-induced injury, deliberate self-harm (DSH) or non-suicidal self-injury.


Why do people self-harm?

People engaging in self-harm tend do so for diverse and complex reasons.

At the heart of the act of hurting oneself is often an intense, underlying emotional pain like anger, guilt, grief, sadness or numbness.

Some people believe that self-harming can provide a ‘release’ that they are otherwise unable to attain. That is, they believe that the feeling (physical or emotional) from self-harming allows them to better deal with painful thoughts and emotions.

Others believe that it is a way for them to ‘express’ difficult or intensely negative feelings. They may feel that they are unable to put into words how they truly feel and that the act of self-inflicted injury can help with this.

Self-harm may even be perceived as a way of ‘empowerment’ that imparts a person with a feeling of self-control.

Self-harm may, in some cases, be an attempt to punish someone else or even gain attention. Although this does happen, the stereotype of self-harm occurring purely to get attention is harmful and potentially even dangerous. This is because dismissing self-harm as a ‘phase’ or an attempt to get noticed (such as in a young person) may ignore the fact that there is underlying emotional or mental distress.


How can I help someone who self-harms?

Self-harm can be a very difficult and confronting topic to acknowledge or talk about.

To talk about self-harm, whether it’s in a general sense or specifically about why an individual self-harms, it is necessary to understand the underlying (or likely) motivation.

Quite simply, most people are unlikely to deliberately hurt themselves without a significant underlying reason. That reason is generally not an attempt to get attention.

As mentioned, the reasons for self-harming behaviour are usually multifaceted and will often have complex origins. Even so, here are some of the more common underlying causes behind self-harming behaviour:

  • Anger, grief or sadness: The person is feeling intense negative emotions like anger or sadness.
  • Trauma: The person has experienced, been exposed to, or continues to experience or be exposed to, events that are highly traumatic. This could be a single incident or it could be something that is experienced regularly.
  • Loss or grief: The person has experienced the shock or pain of losing someone close to them. Loss does not exclusively mean the death of a close friend or family member. The end of a relationship is also a form of loss.
  • Bullying or abuse: The person is being (or has been) bullied or abused so severely that one way they ‘deal’ with the emotional pain is through self-inflicting pain or injury. Abuse may mean physical, emotional or even sexual abuse.
  • Mental illness: The person has been struggling with a mental health condition like depression or anxiety.


Talking about self harm

Realising that a friend or family member is self-harming can be a highly upsetting event. You may have found out unintentionally (for example, by seeing scarring or burns on their body), you may have found out through someone close to them, or the person may have revealed it directly to you.

If you do discuss self-harming behaviour with someone, remember that it is important to remain calm and, most importantly of all, non-judgmental.

Here are some tips on having that conversation:

  • Find a neutral (e.g. safe) and relatively private place to talk it out.
  • Let the person know that you are genuinely concerned, that you care for them, and that you are worried.
  • Do your utmost to be a good listener. Don’t just use your ears, but use body language and prompt the other person to do the talking using open-ended questions.
  • Do not get angry, dismiss the self-harming behaviour as an attempt to get attention, or berate and accuse them of being crazy.
  • Keep reminding yourself that you are there to support this person.
  • Let them know that help is available. Emphasise that help works not only for the self-harming behaviour, but also for the underlying emotional pain.
  • Remain non-judgmental at all times. This does not mean that you should condone the self-harming behaviour. Instead, make it clear that your concern is about the action and the person’s wellbeing.


Talking it out is often one of the best things that anyone can do. However, self-harming is a topic that many people feel they cannot discuss with a close friend or family member.

An NQ Connect counsellor can assist in this situation. A counsellor is a mental health professional who is trained to listen and help people understand their stresses and worries. NQ Connect counsellors can help with developing coping strategies and can be reached 24 7 on 1300 059 625 or via free online counselling chat.


Need help? You can find support services in northern Queensland or complete a self-administered K10 test for depression and anxiety. You can also join the online mental health forum to talk with like-minded people.