Self-harm help

Self-harm, which is also referred to as self-injury, occurs when an individual inflicts injury upon themselves to help them deal with stressful situations or periods of angst. The most common form of self-harming involves the cutting of skin on arms, legs and abdominal area.

How to spot the signs of self-harming


Some of the symptoms and signs of self-harming can come in many forms. People can hurt themselves by compulsively picking at their skin, pulling their hair out, stabbing, poisoning, scratching or burning themselves.

A broader definition extends to those who inflict harm on their bodies by over or under indulging with food or alcohol, or through drug abuse.

In younger children the signs can be scratching or biting themselves, picking their skin, or pulling their hair. Self-harming is a relatively common condition but it is often kept secret from friends and family members. It may start in childhood and increase in frequency and severity in adolescence.

Types of self-harm

There are several different types of self-harm that individuals may engage in in a desire to hurt themselves. These include:

  • Damage to skin by cutting, scratching, burning, hitting or persistently picking/ interfering with wound healing
  • Pulling out hair
  • Drug and/ or alcohol misuse
  • Poisoning the body with toxic chemicals and tablets
  • Swallowing inappropriate objects
  • Food restriction and deliberate starvation (anorexia) or binge eating/ bulimia
  • Excessive exercise
  • Overly promiscuous / risky sexual behaviour


Find out more information on the symptoms of self-harm.

Why do people self-harm?

It is believed that the causes of self-harming is not typically suicidal behaviour and normally it is not life threatening. However it is not uncommon for people who self-harm to also have a history of suicidal behaviours on occasions when they have felt hopeless and in despair.

People who self-harm provide temporary relief from feelings such as anxiety, depression, stress or self-loathing. The pain inflicted can release endorphins and a rush of adrenaline which can become pleasurable to the sufferer.

The causes of self-harm can be as follows:

  • Life events and problems such as bullying or loss of a loved one
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Eating disorders
  • Impulsivity
  • Low self-esteem
  • Personality disturbance
  • Alcohol or drug use
  • Abuse and disturbed family and personal relationships

How to stop self-harming

If you have recognised you have a problem and are ready to begin your journey to becoming well again, there are some suggested steps to take in order to help stop self-harming:

  1. Confide in someone and accept you need help from others: once you feel ready to talk, it can be a huge relief to let go of the secret you may have been trying to hide and asking for help is an important first step in recovery.
  2. Recognise your personal triggers: as self-harm is often a way of coping with difficult and intense emotional pain, it is important to recognise in yourself which feelings drive the desire to self-harm, be it feelings of sadness, shame, guilt, anger or loneliness.
  3. Try alternative, less damaging ways ways to release tension:  squeezing ice cubes, pinging elastic bands, taking a cold shower, eating a hot chilli, drawing on yourself with red pen. Be creative and find what helps you.
  4. Learn new ways to cope: when a trigger has been recognised, it is important to find alternative methods of dealing with it. These can include getting creative (painting, writing, and music), exercising, bathing or showering and talking to someone, whether a friend or relative, therapist or on relevant online forum.
  5. Make a "self-soothe" kit: this could be a be a box, bag, tin of objects/activities that are meaningful to you and focus on sensory experiences that ground you and soothe you, e.g. objects that feel nice or unusual, smell good or remind you of positive things, pictures, music play lists, activities to distract-puzzles, colouring in, nail varnish etc. Collect items together that you can “go to” in an emergency.

Treatment for self harming

The type and length of self-harm treatment is dependent on the individual's circumstances and the severity and complexity of the condition. Some people are treated as outpatients, which means they come to the Priory for hourly sessions with their consultant, psychologist or therapist.

Others require a more structured treatment to approach which can include staying at one of the Priory hospitals for the duration of their treatment where they take part in the psychological group programme as well as regular sessions with their consultant.


Successful self-harm support includes development of positive coping mechanisms, (which may involve dialectical behavioural therapy skills work), the reduction or cessation of underlying stress, development of healthy communication skills and the assistance to regulate emotions. Self-harm help and therapy may involve group work, individual work, family therapy, and talking therapies, alongside prescribed medication.

Self-harm recovery

Positive outcomes are enhanced by establishing a trusting relationship between patient and clinician, treatment of any existing mental health issues, plus support from family and friends. The Priory has over 25 years’ experience in helping to treat people who self-harm. We recognise that everyone's self-harm recovery situation is different, which is why we ensure that everyone has a unique treatment plan tailored to their needs.

72% of those that are admitted as an inpatient due to serious self-harming are transitioned back to the community with a significant reduction in their maladaptive behaviours.

For further details on how Priory can provide you with further assistance regarding Self-harm help, please call 0800 840 3219. For professionals looking to make a referral, please click here

More Info

How common is self harm?

Independent research commissioned by the Priory found that an unacceptably high proportion of British youngsters were self-harming. The condition is most prevalent in teenage girls although some do continue their behaviour into adulthood.

The research found that 13% of young people have self-harmed and the prevalence is highest in girls aged 15 to 17 years old. Self harming is a dramatic, addictive behaviour, and a maladaptive way for growing numbers of youngsters to relieve their psychological distress by literally cutting themselves off from disturbing thoughts and feelings.

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“We have developed a unique strategy to manage self-injury, whilst reducing the incidents of assaults to staff when intervening in this emotive behaviour. Through this development, we have demonstrated our commitment to improving the service user’s experience at this difficult time and empowering our staff. This strategy has been recognised by the Care Quality Commission as an area of best practice”

Jenine Gorman, Ward Manager and Louise McKenna, Clinical Nurse Lead at the Priory Hospital Cheadle Royal