Skip to main content

Updated : August 1, 2022 18 mins read


Updated : August 1, 2022 18 mins read

It’s important to remember…

The information that we put together in these pages are for informational purposes and should never be used as medical advice or instead of advice given to you from a health professional.

If you have any concerns about your mental health then you should always speak to a mental health professional or your GP.

We do our very best to put together information that gives you a good understanding of mental health issues and what can help but it is not intended as medical advice and we do not take responsibility that it is accurate or up to date at the time of reading.

Trigger warning

This page talks about self-harm and issues that might be upsetting. If you are struggling at the minute you may find it triggering to read this page today.

What to do if you feel triggered: You don’t need to read everything on this page today.

You could also use the summary/jump to section to go sections you feel able to read. Or, you can bookmark it, leave it completely and come back to it another day.

Self-harm can be a way of coping with difficult emotional pain, by creating physical pain.

There are lots of reasons why a person self harms, it is not for attention or because they want to die. It is a way of dealing with overwhelming and upsetting thoughts and feelings.

Many people who self-harm feel isolated because they hurt themselves. In fact, it’s more common than you may think and there are lots of ways to get help and support to stop self-harming and address the issues that are causing it.

What is self-harm?

Self-harm is when a person causes harm to themselves on purpose. Sometimes this might be called intentional self-injury or self-poisoning, it can also be referred to as non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI).

It is difficult to know for sure how many people self-harm because many people hide it and don’t wish to talk about it. From research we do know that around 10% of all young people have self-harmed at some point in their lives. We also know that in Scotland, 14% of 14 – 15 year olds have self-harmed.

This tells us that lots of young people are experiencing upsetting or distressing thoughts and feelings that they try to manage with self-harm.

Self-harm is a way of feeling in control, it isn’t about wanting to hurt yourself.

It’s about being in control of pain or making an emotional pain physical or visible. For example, someone may cut themselves because they feel an overwhelming sense of pain on the inside, which they can’t understand or tell anyone. By cutting themselves and having physical pain it can help them cope with the emotional pain and provide a sense of relief.

People often think of cutting when they think of self-harm but there are many different behaviours that can be considered self-harm. Binge drinking, reckless or unsafe behaviour, self-punishment and excessive exercising can all be ways someone can put their health or safety at risk.

It is important to recognise that there isn’t one type of person who self-harms. The causes of self-harm can happen to anyone, from any walk of life.

Types of self-harm

Things you might know are self-harm:

  • Cutting
  • Picking or scratching at your skin
  • Burning
  • Overdosing
  • Restricting or binge-eating food

Things you might not know are self-harm:

  • Swallowing or inserting objects
  • Self-neglect
  • Excessive exercising
  • Putting yourself in situations you know you’ll get hurt
  • Hitting yourself or hitting other things
  • Pulling out your hair (this might be from your head, eyelashes, genitals)
  • Binge drinking or drug misuse

If you’re worried about self-harming, you’re not alone and can get help today.

Call 116 123 – The Samaritans

Webchat: Childline Counsellor Chat

Call 0800 83 85 87 – Breathing Space (Scotland-only service)

Text: ‘YM’ to 85258 – Young Minds crisis chat

What causes self-harm

Feeling the need to self-harm is caused by a buildup of distressing feelings that can feel overwhelming, for some people self-harm releases that pressure and helps them to cope. There are different ways to manage distressing emotions in a safer way, but it is very common for people to use self-harm when they feel there is no other option.

Once a person has self-harmed, they might promise themselves that it would be the last time. There is a lot of guilt attached to self-harm because it feels like you’re doing something wrong.

It’s important to remember that you’re not doing something wrong, you’re doing the best you can right now to manage your feelings.

Why do people self-harm?

There are many reasons why someone might self-harm.

Some common reasons include:

  • To feel in control
  • Releasing emotional pain
  • To feel something
  • Self-punishment
  • Distraction from emotional pain
  • To try and feel better
  • Because it’s too hard to put feelings into words

Treatment for self-harm

What can you do to manage impulses to self-harm and get the help you need?

The first step is to tell someone. If you haven’t told anyone about your self-harm, this can feel really scary.

If you can, tell a family member, teacher or someone you trust. If you don’t feel ready or comfortable talking to someone you know, there are many people who work at charities and helplines that want to be there for you.

It is also common for people to feel worse after first telling someone about self-harm. If you think back to the self-harm cycle this is because self-harming can make you feel ashamed which can start the cycle all over again.

Remember you’re doing the best you can right now with the ways you know how. Getting help and support is going to help you find healthier ways to manage.

Getting professional help

If you don’t think you are able to stop self-harming on your own or with support from your family, you can get support from mental health services.

You can access mental health services by speaking to your GP or by referring yourself to your local young person  & Adolescent Mental Health service (CAMHs), you can find a list of Scotland’s CAMHS here

It is thought that one of the best ways to overcome self-harm is by using talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT).

Talking therapies are a form of treatment where you and a trained therapist work together to find out what might be causing the emotional distress. They can also help you to find different ways of coping that don’t cause you harm.

CBT focuses on finding ways to change unhelpful thinking patterns and behaviours.

DBT is based on CBT but helps people who feel intense emotions. DBT encourages people to find new ways whilst also accepting who they are.

There isn’t a medication that you can take to stop self-harm. Your doctor might offer you some medication if they feel your self-harm is caused by a mental health condition that can be helped by medication. For example if your doctor thinks you might be depressed, you might be offered to take an antidepressant. Some people find that medication helps them to get to a place where they feel able to address the issues that are causing them self-harm.

If you don’t feel that you’re ready to speak to a medical or mental health professional there are some other things you can do that can help you stay safe:

  • Can you talk to someone you know. A close friend or trusted adult
  • Try different distraction technique to see if any of them work for you
  • Use online resources and helplines
  • Think about making a safety plan to help you through difficult times

If you are worried about your mental health or self-harm behaviours please think about reaching out to a professional to talk about how you are feeling.

What to do if you still need to self-harm

Remember: There is always a risk involved with self-harm. No matter how safe you think you are, there is a risk that you can seriously harm yourself.

At Forces Children Scotland, we don’t encourage self-harm as a way of coping but we understand that you might feel there is no other way.

There are ways that you can distract yourself from the urge to self-harm. You can also speak to someone about what you’re going through.