Why people self-harm

Self-harm is when somebody intentionally damages or injures their body.


Some of the reasons that people may self-harm include:


  • expressing or coping with emotional distress
  • trying to feel in control
  • a way of punishing themselves
  • relieving unbearable tension
  • a cry for help
  • a response to intrusive thoughts


Self-harm may be linked to bad experiences that are happening now, or in the past. But sometimes the reason is unknown.


The reasons can also change over time and will not be the same for everybody.

Common causes of emotional distress

Self-harm is most often described as a way to express or cope with emotional distress.


There are many possible causes of emotional distress. It’s often a build-up of many smaller things that leads people to think about self-harm.


Some examples include:


  • being bullied
  • pressure at school or work
  • family arguments or relationship problems
  • money worries
  • low self-esteem
  • struggling with stress, anxiety or depression
  • confusion about sexuality
  • grief after bereavement or loss
  • physical or sexual abuse
  • being in contact with the criminal justice system experiencing complex mental health difficulties that sometimes cause impulsive behaviour or difficulty controlling emotions, often due to past trauma


Self-harm and suicide


There is evidence of a clear link between suicide or suicidal thoughts and people who have previously self-harmed.


However, not everyone who self-harms wants to end their life. Some people describe their self-harm as a way of staying alive by responding to or coping with severe emotional distress.


It’s important to find the right support or treatment to help deal with the underlying cause in a less harmful way.


  • try talking about your feelings to a friend, family member, trained volunteer or health professional. You could contact Samaritans, call: 116 123 or email: if you need someone to talk to

  • try working out if feeling a certain way leads to your self-harm – for example, when you’re feeling sad or anxious you could try expressing that emotion in a safer way

  • try waiting before you consider self-harm – distract yourself by going out for a walk, listening to music, or doing something else harmless that interests you; the need to self-harm may begin to pass over time

  • try calming breathing exercises or other things you find relaxing to reduce feelings of anxiety

  • write down your feelings – no one else needs to see it

  • read about mental health and wellbeing – including help for common feelings such as stress, anxiety and depression

  • if you struggle with suicidal thoughts, it may help to make a safety plan to use if you need it – the Staying Safe website has a guide on how to make a safety plan

Speak to a GP if:
  • you’re harming yourself
  • you’re having thoughts about harming yourself
  • you’re worried about minor injuries, such as small cuts or burns – without treatment there is a risk of infection

Some people who self-harm are at a higher risk of suicide.

It’s important to get support or treatment as soon as possible to help with the underlying cause and prevent suicidal thoughts developing.

If you just need to talk, any time of day or night

Free listening services

These services offer confidential advice from trained volunteers. You can talk about anything that’s troubling you, no matter how difficult:

If you’re under 19, you can also call 0800 1111 to talk to Childline. The number will not appear on your phone bill.

If you prefer a webchat, these services are available at certain times:

Further information and support

These organisations offer information and support for anyone who self-harms or thinks about self-harm, or their friends and family:

If you struggle with suicidal thoughts or are supporting someone else, the Staying Safe website provides information on how to make a safety plan. It includes video tutorials and online templates to guide you through the process.

Get some help

Organisations that can help