How to help someone who self-harms

If you learn that a person you know is self-harming:

  • try not to panic
  • look after any immediate medical concerns or physical injuries first
  • listen to them and try to find out what they need

Talk to them in a private space. Try to make them feel comfortable so that they can honestly discuss their thoughts and feelings. Talk to them about what is happening.

Pretending it does not exist often reinforces shame. Try to see the person, not the injuries. The bigger picture is always important when someone is self-harming.

Try to acknowledge their pain without intruding. Try to understand how distressed they feel. Let them know you will talk whenever they want. Do not rush them.

Let them know how you feel. Many people who self-harm have trouble expressing their thoughts and feelings. Encourage them to cry, if they need to. Crying is a healthy and normal way to express sadness or frustrations.

If you need to, tell someone you trust. You're not betraying the person's trust if you need support.

Distraction techniques

Tell the person that they can use a distraction technique when they get the urge to self-harm. This involves distracting themselves until they feel the urge has passed.

Distraction can involve:

  • talking to someone, a friend or family member, a helpline or online support
  • doing some exercise – even running-on-the-spot or star jumps
  • shouting or singing at the top of their lungs – they can do this into a pillow if they do not want other people to hear

Get support if you need it

You can talk to Samaritans. Samaritans provide 24-hour confidential, non-judgemental support to anyone struggling to cope.

Email jo@samaritans.ie

Freephone 116 123

New ways to cope

To move past self-harming, a person will need to understand why they self-harm. Then they can learn new ways to deal with it.

Talking therapy can be an essential part of overcoming it.

Talk to the person about what kind of support they might consider. This can help to get them to attend appointments.

Patience

Be realistic. Do not expect the behaviour to stop immediately. It may take a long time to replace the self-harm with a healthier coping strategy. Talking with you may be the first step.

Things that are unhelpful

Telling someone to simply stop self-harming, without understanding the reasons or finding new ways to cope, can be unhelpful.

Most people who self-harm would stop if they could. Remember, it can be a coping mechanism they use to stay alive.

Avoid:

  • casual comments encouraging them to stop
  • making them feel guilty about self-harming, or trying to punish them

The key thing in moving past self-harm is open and honest communication.

Non-urgent advice: Talk to your GP if:

  • an issue with self-harm is becoming overwhelming

They can help you get extra support.

Page last reviewed: 1 September 2022
Next review due: 1 September 2025