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Self-harm occurs when people intentionally hurt themselves, without intending suicide (although self-harm can result in death). Self-harm can result from a range of harmful behaviours, but the most common form of self-harm for teenagers is cutting. Often self-harming behaviour will be hidden from others, which can make it incredibly difficult to assess. The reasons for self-harm are not clearly understood, and may differ from person to person. Given the extremely serious nature of self-harm, and the potential for serious physical danger, it is crucial that those at risk of self-harming receive psychological support as early as possible.

Signs this might be a problem:

  • social withdrawal, loss of interest spending time with friends and engaging in other recreational activities
  • physical injuries, such as cuts or scratches on the body, or scars that look to be from past self inflicted injuries
  • continual attempts of the person to hide or cover up a part of their body, which may be at attempt to cover up self injury.
Girl with light wash jeans holding arm

What is self-harming?

Self-harm refers to when a person deliberately injures themselves without intending suicide (although in serious instances death may occur). The most common form of self-harm is cutting, but other forms of self-harm may include deliberate poisoning and overdose, burning or swallowing sharp objects likely to cause internal damage.

Self-harm is an extremely serious issue affecting young Australians, and is most likely to occur or begin during teenage years. An estimated 25,000 Australians are admitted to hospital each year due to self-harm, a figure which has been steadily increasing since 2005. Self-harm is more common in females than males. It is estimated that between 1-4% of young males will self-harm at some point, and between 1-10% of young females.

Why do people self-harm?

The underlying causes for self-harm are complicated and often unclear. Self-harm may occur in response to a person attempting to communicate feelings of sadness, and/or to express a need for support. Self-harm may also provide the person with a sense of control and temporary relief. Teenagers suffering depression, low self-esteem and self-hatred are most at risk for self-harm. Self-harming behaviours may be triggered in response to stressful life events (breakdown of a relationship, bullying, family breakup or experiencing any form of abuse).

What young people can do about self-harm

Given the serious nature of self-harm, professional help is always recommended. GPs are a great place to access referrals to other psychological support services, such as counsellors, psychologists or psychiatrists, if needed. Although self-harm may not be directly related to suicidal thoughts, it is important that the risk of serious harm and suicide be assessed.

If self-harm functions as a coping strategy for a person, it can be helpful to focus on learning new distraction or coping strategies. If there are obvious triggers to self-harm that can be identified then coping strategies should be aimed at addressing these issues.

For example, if exam stress is an issue then learning to take time out from study may be important, or if the person is in an emotionally or physically abusive or difficult relationship then guidance on how to end the relationship could be useful. It's important to work with the young person to develop a list of alternative behaviours that they can use to distract themselves from their self-harm urges so that they can build their confidence in coping without it.

ReachOut.com resources on self-harm

Recommended professional resources

How to help

  • Encourage discussion of self-harm. Try not to appear judgemental about the behaviour, or simply tell them to stop. This is important to ensure that the person continues to communicate about the issue.
  • Work out distraction plans for when the person feels at risk of self-harming.
  • Encourage the person to seek assistance from a psychologist.