Facts about self harm

Facts about self harm

A definition of self harm is difficult to achieve because of the range and intensity of behaviours that can be labelled as both detrimental to an individual’s wellbeing and  self inflicted.

Self harming behaviour may include:

  • Repeatedly cutting the skin
  • Burning, scalding, banging or scratching one’s own body
  • Breaking bones
  • Pulling hair
  • Ingesting toxic substances or objects

There are a variety of other risk taking behaviours which may also be, but are not necessarily, self harming: 

  • Over- or under-eating
  • Drug and alcohol misuse
  • Dangerous driving
  • Unsafe sex

What is self harm

 Our definition is in line with self harm as a symptom or a coping mechanism which often masks underlying emotional and psychological trauma.

 Who is at risk?

It is difficult to establish a true picture of the extent of self harming behaviours among people because much of it remains hidden. Research findings about prevalence vary from 1 in 5 among 15-17 year old girls (The Priory, 2005); to 1 in 10 young people self harming at some point in their teenage years (The Samaritans, 2006).  Definitions of self harm and research methods vary, making interpretation difficult. The review of available findings (The Truth Hurts[1]) concluded that a representative finding is probably that about 1 in 15 young people self harm.  Moreover, the study found that the average age of onset among 11 to 25 year olds is 12 years old. However, the picture for adults is even more blurred with few studies in non-clinical populations.

Most of these studies are UK based. Some research carried out in Scotland (O’Connor et. al. 2009) suggests that there is a distinct gender pattern in self harm with females being more likely to self harm than males. This study points to a similar prevalence among 15-16 year's old, one in ten young women stated that they had self harmed at some point in their lives.

There are also some identified  vulnerable  ‘at risk’ groups. These include:
v     Young people in residential settings
v     Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people
v     Young Asian women
v     Young people with learning disabilities

 Why do people self harm

It is important to recognise  that we all have strategies for dealing with stress.  These may be more or less effective depending on the extent to which we engage in them and the impact they have on our lives.  People who self harm are not always able to make the connection between their self harming behaviour and its underlying ‘causes’. Nor may they be able to indentify ‘triggers’.  Some people relate their behaviour to traumatic life experiences and some do not. 

Self harm arises as the result of a complex combination of experiences. Some of the factors identified by current research include:

  • Family problems
  • Feeling stressed
  • Having boy/girlfriend problems
  • Exams/school work stresses
  • The way I look/my appearance
  • Someone close to me has died
  • Feeling lonely
  • Feeling guilty
  • Not having someone close to talk to
  • Being bullied
  • Mental health problems (e.g. depression)
  • Family circumstances (poverty; parental criminality/substance misuse)
  • Disrupted upbringing, often including significant loss (reception into local authority care; parental separation; death of significant friend/family member)
  • Family relationship problems.
  • Sexual abuse

It is widely accepted that self harm is a response to profound emotional pain that cannot be resolved in another way.  The self harm is often a way of releasing feelings of self hatred, anger, sadness and depression.  Self harm can alter the person’s state of mind and so give them some respite from their troubles.



[1] Mental Health Foundation /Camelot Foundation.  Findings highlighted in Truth Hurts: report of the National Inquiry into  self-harm among young people. London:  Mental Health Foundation /Camelot Foundation 2006