How to Help Someone Who's Self-Harming

Have you discovered that someone close to you resorts to self-harm? We are talking about a difficult and delicate situation that we do not always know how to deal with. If you find yourself in this situation right now, we give you some tips to help that person.
How to Help Someone Who's Self-Harming
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 08 April, 2024

Some emotions are too raw. They’re the kind that we don’t really know what to do with and that stick to us like an extra layer, like a strange substance that stings and makes life difficult. To alleviate this pain, some resort to self-harm. This involves injury to the body that seeks to channel and or anesthetize emotional suffering for a moment.

Self-harm is a completely dysfunctional act. However, behind it, lies a highly complex amalgamation of triggers and reasons that the individual struggles to deal with. Nor do they understand them. Furthermore, this behavior is considered to be a public health problem. In fact, in many cases, it’s linked to suicide.

Research conducted by the Federal University of Bahia (Brazil) indicates that the global prevalence of self-harm is extremely serious in the adolescent population. Indeed, around 20 percent of young people suffer from it. It has a tremendous impact on both families and society and requires sensitivity in its understanding and approach.

Let’s take a look at some useful guidelines to follow, should you find someone close to you exhibiting self-harming behavior.

Self-harm is more frequent among the female gender.

Suffering teen girl symbolizing how to help someone who is self harm
One of the main strategies for helping someone who’s self-harming is to avoid judgment.

How to help someone who’s self-harming

When someone close to you self-harms, you’ll probably wonder why. After all, it’s difficult to understand why someone should cut or burn themselves or start pulling out their hair. The State University of New Jersey (USA) conducted a study in which they claimed that physical pain is a way of distracting from emotional anguish.

There’s also another hypothesis. This is the fact that a good deal of nonsuicidal self-injury is carried out in an attempt to ‘feel something’. In effect, the emotional numbness is so deep that the sufferer needs to experience some kind of sensation. These are harsh realities that we could all end up facing at some point.

But, how should you act if someone close to you is self-harming? The first thing you’ll experience is the desire to save them and convince them not to repeat their actions. However, these strategies—though they’re entirely understandable—don’t always work. Here are a series of steps you should keep in mind.

When an individual hurts themselves, afterward they feel ashamed. This is the only coping strategy available to them. They need to be guided in search of better resources and tools.

1. Avoid judgment and criticism

When you discover that someone you know is self-harming, you may well experience feelings of rejection and bewilderment. Therefore, almost automatically you might say to them: “Why on earth did you do that, are you crazy?” But, this is the worst phrase that could ever come out of your mouth. It’s an expression that you must avoid at all costs.

As a matter of fact, if you want to help someone who’s self-harming, avoid judgments, criticism, and any impulsive comments. The last thing someone dealing with heightened emotional distress needs is to be accused and punished. Stay calm and understand that they’re using the only coping strategy they know to deal with what’s happening to them.

2. Acknowledge their emotions and give them space

Self-harm is a dysfunctional mechanism for handling severe emotional distress. Their anguish won’t go away by you telling them that “Everything will be fine” and “Trust me, I’ll help you.” After they self-harm, they feel ashamed. This means it probably won’t even be easy for them to talk to you.

Offer them understanding. Make them see that you can tune into their reality. Ask them: “How do you feel?” or “What sensation are you experiencing right now?”. Obviously, it won’t be easy for them to put it into words so give them time and space.

3. Show concern and care

“You’re not alone in this. I’m here for you. I’ll take care of you”. Whoever self-harms wants to feel something by relieving the weight of anguish through their wounds. They also feel lonely. Moreover, they may assume that their tangle of thoughts and emotions will never go away, and the pain they’re feeling now will be permanent.

They need support from their environment and their close relationships so they can be themselves without judgment or others wanting to control them. So, show them your genuine concern. Don’t seek to control or impose. Just concentrate on caring for them and being there.

4. Be impartial but attentive about their self-harm

Try and avoid any intense reactions to their injuries. Any overstated response will make them feel even more embarrassed. Ideally, be impartial and show them that they don’t need to apologize or say anything if they don’t want to.

Also, avoid reinforcing the stigma around self-harm. Mind your language. Limit your impulsive reactions and attitudes or you might find you’ve suddenly built a wall between you.

Don’t hesitate to provide support to treat their physical wounds that might be hidden but, at the same time, may require medical assistance.

There are many types of self-harming behaviors. In fact, many of them can go unnoticed. When you discover that someone close to you is self-harming, don’t judge. Be impartial. Most importantly, offer them understanding and guide them to request specialized help.

5. Remember, you can’t take responsibility for them

When you witness a loved one self-harming, you want to save them. Indeed, you may become obsessed with rescuing them, with doing for them what they can’t do for themselves. However, this approach is extremely dangerous, because you can’t place the tasks of others on your own shoulders.

Your function is to support, understand, and be there for them. You mustn’t take on their responsibilities. They must work on their own recovery. Even if you find it difficult, you must delegate and try and trust in them.

6. Guide them to request specialized help

Behind this type of situation, lie deep realities and experiences that the self-harmer hasn’t dealt with. They have a large number of emotions to address. However, they can’t deal with them alone. After all, we’ve already established that they don’t have the appropriate coping strategies.

You must also remember that some self-harming behavior has suicidal intent. Therefore, you must act. If you want to help them, guide them toward seeking specialized care. Psychological therapy, along with social support from their environment will facilitate the best progress.

Woman in psychological therapy symbolizing how to help someone who is self-harming
It’s essential that you urge and know how to guide the self-harmer to start psychological therapy.

Final note

If you’re a family member, friend, or partner of someone who self-harms, there’s one undeniable truth. You’ll never fully understand why they do it. It’s something that’s difficult to accept. In fact, mental health problems are polyhedral realities and it’s extremely difficult to understand them in complete detail.

In all cases, the most important thing is knowing that these psychological crossroads can be overcome. The individual who resorts to self-harm must address and work in psychological therapy on the latent dimensions that are promoting their behavior. Gradually, they can develop adequate tools for dealing with their emotional discomfort in a more effective and, above all, healthy way.

Finally, it’s worth knowing how to be a friend to them on their healing journey, supporting them but not stigmatizing them. As we mentioned earlier, this is a particularly serious social emergency for young people today. Therefore, it’s up to us to learn how to prevent and treat it.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.