Helping a Friend Who Self-Harms: What You Need to Know

Feb 14, 2023 | Depression, Helping a Loved One, Self-Harm

Self-harm is a challenging topic to discuss, but it is critically important to engage in a conversation when someone you love is at risk. If you are concerned about a friend who self-harms, it’s essential to know how to recognize the warning signs and the steps you can take to help them seek treatment.

What is Self-Harm?

Self-harm describes any behavior that results in self-inflicted damage to the body. It can be an attempt to cope with difficult emotions or a form of self-punishment. Self-harm can take many forms but always involves intentional self-injury without an intent to commit suicide.

Cutting is the most common form, but people also burn or scratch themselves, pull out their hair, or hit themselves. People who struggle with mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression often turn to self-harm when trying to regulate their mood.

Self-harm is, unfortunately, more prevalent than one may realize. According to the American Psychological Association, approximately 17% of adolescents have harmed themselves at least once. Additionally, sexual minorities are more likely to engage in self-harm than heterosexuals.

Some common signs and symptoms include:

  • Cuts, burns, or other unexplained injuries limbs, hips, and stomach
  • Self-isolation
  • Challenges with emotional regulation
  • Low self-esteem
  • Impulsivity
  • Wearing baggy clothes
  • Refraining from activities where the skin is shown, such as swimming
Self-Harm & Suicide Risk

Self-harm is often associated with suicide, but this link may not exist for some. Self-harming behaviors are often a coping response to troubling circumstances and emotions and can even act as a way to avoid suicidal ideation or action.

The more a person self-harms, the less inhibited they become about future self-harm behaviors, which may eventually lead to suicide becoming an ultimate goal. It is crucial for people who are engaging in self-harm behaviors to seek help from a mental health professional, and it should also be taken seriously by their loved ones.

Reasons Behind Self-Harm

Self-harm can be a way to cope with difficult emotions or challenging experiences, but there are many reasons why people self-harm. It can be a way to release pent-up emotions, cope with anxiety or depression, or punish oneself. The reasoning behind a person causing harm to themselves can come from within or directed at others—however, the latter is less common.

A few common reasons for self-harming are:

  • Coping with anger by directing it inward and punishing oneself
  • Seeking relief from feeling emotionally numb
  • Soothing or relieving overwhelming, challenging emotions
  • Needing to show a physical sign of distress

Self-harm is often seen as a call for help, and it’s essential to take any threat of self-harm seriously. If you are worried about a friend who self-harms, look for warning signs such as sudden changes in mood or behavior, withdrawal from social activities, talking about harming themselves, or giving away prized possessions. Do not hesitate to reach out to your friend and offer support if you see any of these warning signs.

Ways to Help

If you feel someone you care for is causing harm to themselves, it is essential to encourage them to seek help. But it is also crucial to meet your friend without judgment. If you’re looking for recommendations on how to help a friend who self-harms, consider the following:

  • Offer support: Again, without placing judgment on your friend, show your friend (through actions and words) that you will be there to help them, even if you don’t fully understand what they’re going through. It’s critically important not to dismiss their actions in any way.
  • Pursue understanding: While you may not understand why your friend is causing harm to themselves, it is important to try and seek insight to the best of your ability. Ask genuine questions to get a feel for their situation and obtain information about how self-harm helps them cope. Additionally, research on your own so that you’re not putting the burden of educating you on the person who is struggling. However, if there is an immediate threat to your friend’s life, it is critical to seek emergency assistance right away.
  • Don’t pressure them: Trying to make someone promise to stop a self-harming behavior may compound their preexisting emotional pressure. Many people turn to self-injury to cope and feel in control. If they cannot properly relinquish that avenue of control, it could worsen their internal experience. Additionally, asking them to promise to stop can lead to heightened feelings of guilt when or if they return to the behavior and break the promise.
  • Accept them: You can gently lead your friend toward realizing the harmful impact of self-injury without accepting the behavior in a way that tells them they’re right. Accept that people cope differently, and sometimes it takes learning and commitment to alter those mechanisms. In doing so, offer to support them in seeking professional help. Offer to set up an appointment or accompany them to their first visit with a mental health practitioner.

If you are concerned about a friend who self-harms, there are many steps you can take to help them. But at the core of any action you take, remember always to offer support and understanding while letting them know you are there for them. Helping a friend who self-harms can be challenging, but it’s important to remember that you are not alone in this—and neither is your friend. They can get the help they need to overcome self-harm with love and support.

Treatment Options for Self-Harm

There are many available treatments for self-harm. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one treatment type that can be very effective. CBT, which is a form of talk therapy, can help people learn how to cope with difficult emotions in healthy ways and manage stress through behavior change. Other common treatment modalities are:

  • Psychotherapy (or talk therapy)
  • Medication
  • Inpatient, partial hospitalization, or outpatient programs

When a person struggles with self-injury, it’s important to remember that it cannot heal immediately or overnight. Recovery takes commitment and hard work but is possible when the proper support systems are in place. Love and support from friends and family can be invaluable in helping a person cope with self-harm.

If someone you know is struggling with self-injurious behavior, New Dimensions can help. Remember, you are not alone in this. Seek help today and start on the road to recovery.

Our team of experienced therapists and psychiatrists can help you overcome these challenges and help you develop the skills you need to thrive. To an assessment or to find out more about our programs, contact us at 1-800-685-9796 or visit our website at

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