What is self-harm?
Deliberate self-harm, also called self-injury, is when people inflict physical harm on themselves, usually in private and without suicidal intentions. Some survivors of sexual assault may use self-harm to cope with difficult or painful feelings.
Common forms of self-harm include:
- Hitting the body
- Pulling out hair
- Scratching and picking skin
Self-harm isn’t necessarily a warning sign for suicide, but it can be a sign that someone has survived a serious trauma. You might be trying to numb the pain, feel a release, or regain a sense of control. Unfortunately, this relief is often short-lived, and the urge to self-harm can return, encouraging a cycle of self-harm that may cause damage, infection, and sometimes life-threatening medical problems.
What can I do if I am thinking about harming myself?
- Leave the room where the object is that you were going to use for self-harm. If this is not possible, put the object out of your sight until the urge to self-harm passes.
- Control your breathing. Take slow deep breaths, counting to five as you inhale, holding your breath for three more seconds, then counting to five as you exhale. Repeat this five to ten times.
- Go outside and take a walk. Describe to yourself everything you see in great detail.
- Write it out. Write down what you are thinking and feeling. For some people this helps them move through the difficult time. Other people like writing about something different—what they’re doing on the weekend, or what they’re looking forward to.
- Send a text message to someone—it can be about anything. It can be about how you are feeling or something that seems unimportant. Keeping your hands busy is important, and texting a friend or loved one can help you get through this time.
- Draw on yourself or use henna tattoos on the part of the body where you wanted to self-harm.
- Take a hot shower or a bath, but first remove any razors that are in the area. Stay in the shower or bath until the urge to self-harm fades.
- Rub ice across the part of your body where you typically self-harm.
- Tear up newspapers, magazines, or cardboard into the smallest pieces you can make.
If I notice self-harm, what can I do?
To an outsider, self-harm might not be very apparent. Survivors tend to do these activities in secret. They put effort into covering up signs of self-harm, like wearing long sleeves over cut skin. It’s often loved ones or people who spend a lot of time with the survivor who are the first to notice changes in behavior.
If you think that someone you care about is self-harming, you can play an important role in that person’s recovery.
- Start by asking them more generally how they’re doing. How are things at home? How are their relationships?
- Explain that you care about their well-being overall.
- Then, let them know you’ve noticed signs of self-harm. The survivor may be receptive or they may not be. Either way, you’ve made a positive step forward by communicating that someone notices, and someone cares about their health.
Where can I find help and learn more?
If you or someone you care about is self-harming, call the S.A.F.E. Alternatives information line in the U.S. at 800.DONTCUT (800.366.8288) for referrals and support for cutting and self-harm. You can also learn more about self-harm and treatment options from the S.A.F.E. Alternatives website.
Self-injury Outreach & Support (SiOS) has valuable resources for those who self-injure, those who have recovered, and those who want to help.
For help with youth and their families, you can reach out to the Boystown National Hotline by calling 800.448.3000.
To speak with someone who is trained to help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE(4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org.
Please note that content on this site does not constitute medical advice and RAINN is not a medical expert. If after reading this information you have further questions, please contact a local healthcare professional or hospital.