Understanding Self Harm

I attended a workshop facilitated by Breaking The Silence and the HSE.  These are the takeaways that I had from it and they aligned with what I have heard those who self-harm express about their experiences. 

Self-harm is a way of coping with overwhelm. It helps someone feel relief, even calmness and an element of control. Trying to stop someone outright isn't helpful. 

(If you come across someone in need of emergency care, arrange that before trying to discuss the situation.)

Self-harm is not just about cutting or burns, it can come in many forms and cycles. It is when someone intends to harm self to manage/escape feelings. 

Self-harm is not about attention seeking, however, when self-harm is visible or someone discusses it. It is a request for their pain to be seen. We can give attention to the persons deeper need, rather than dismiss it as something we feel more comfortable calling it such as "its attention seeking" or "mimicking TV" or "being dramatic"

Self-harm is a form of survival and staying alive. Respect a persons resilience, even when the actions are hurting them and uncomfortable or confusing for you!

Self-harm is not restricted to an age group or gender or sexuality or social class it is related to survival and emotional overwhelm. 

You can support someone by listening to where they are at and ASK them can I suggest something before jumping to stop or "fix" it .. We tend to jump straight to stopping or fixing and in that miss the connection and purpose self-harm serves. 

You can ask questions like 

  • Are you hurting yourself?
  • How do you feel when you are doing it? 
  • Would you like to feel this way through a different means? 
  • How can I support you right now?
  • Would you consider going to a good GP or therapist? 


Our initial reaction can be to tell a person to stop and shut it all down, which can simply promote further secrecy and isolation.

Consider being soft with yourself and them, gently be with how sensitive and difficult this is for you both to discuss, be curious about where they are at and honest about where you are and then ASK can you help, do they need something from you. Reach out rather than attempt to control. 

Call it what it is, such as self-harm or hurting yourself but do so in a tone that is compassionate rather than judgemental. 

Acceptance of how a person is surviving can feel unnatural when they are hurting themselves, however, through that acceptance, you can support the person to make a safer choice for themselves. Avoid giving advice you are not trained to give, even though you think it might be helpful.

Recovery comes from an understanding of where a person is and their desire for it to be different, it doesn't come from another person controlling or directing them. If anything that can require further unsafe choices moving forward. 

If you have read this and you are self-harming, please reach out to someone who will listen compassionately to you. You have kept yourself alive, I commend you for that. If you want there to be another way there is, if you want to pursue that way please reach out to someone like a good GP or therapist. You deserve to feel better and have other options, if you want to.