Self Harm On the Rise?

Maddy Lykourgos, trainee psychologist, writes about rising issues with deliberate self-harm

In recent news you might have seen the headlines about an increase in deliberate self-harm in our society. The reported increase appears to be specifically around the adolescent and young adult populations and includes a range of behaviours that are considered harmful and self-actioned. So, what is self-harm? Self-harm is any deliberate action that you might do to yourself with the intention of causing pain or injury. Typically we tend to think of cutting, burning or hitting, but self-harm spans into much more subtle behaviours, anything from hair pulling to taking toxic substances.

Why do people self-harm?

Generally speaking deliberate self-harm is a strategy used to cope with or express difficult emotions. The intention behind it can be different; sometimes it is seen as a way to punish oneself; some find relief in the physicality of painful sensations, and others use it to externally express their internal emotional distress. The circumstances leading to it might vary from difficult social conditions like bullying or relationship problems, having traumatic experiences or certain psychological causes such as compulsive harm thoughts or dissociation.

The increase in the rates of self-harm that we see broadcast in the news could be due to many factors, but most prominently that people are more open about reporting it and more aware of how to notice it. What should we look out for if we’re concerned we or someone close to us might be experiencing self-harming behaviours? Typically, some of the warning signs of self-harm come from trying to hide any visible scars by wearing long sleeves or being fully covered even in hot weather. Additionally, people, especially children or younger adults, might withdraw from the family or social circle, spending more time alone. They might express a critical sense of self and low self-esteem. They may avoid talking about or experiencing the strong negative emotions by any means of distraction possible, or alternatively, experiencing overt emotional ‘cascades’ that can be overwhelming.

Overt emotional displays can be more common in the case of younger people due to difficulty regulating their emotions. Emotion dysregulation can be associated with difficulty calming down when upset, experiencing disproportionate emotional reactions to situations, having difficulty identifying their own emotions and those of others, as well as increased impulsivity. This, paired with academic and social pressures, can therefore increase the likelihood of a young person resorting to self-harm. It can be the easier option to release pent up emotions, often with the intention of grounding oneself.

What are simple alternative techniques to cope with urges to self-harm?

-Sensory stimulation: tapping; stroking a pet; taking a hot or cold shower

-Different expressive outlets: writing, listening to or playing music; poetry; journalling; art

-Mindfulness exercises: find ways to externalise focus to the present moment and away from the negative thoughts e.g. 5,4,3,2,1 (these can be done in any order depending on the environment)

5: things I can see

4: things I can touch

3: things I can hear

2: things I can taste

1: thing I can smell

-Sharing the thoughts that might be troubling. Talking about self-harm can be a difficult subject to approach, but often some people may offer a different perspective or help to diffuse some of the intensity associated with the urges to self-harm. Finding someone to reach out to can often unload some of the burden of trying to keep the secret to ourselves. Whether that’s a friend, family member or teacher there is always someone available to confide in.

If you are experiencing thoughts or acts of deliberate self-harm, you can always contact your GP for an emergency appointment, or use contact helplines such as:

YoungMinds Parents Helpline – call 0808 802 5544 (9.30am to 4pm on weekdays)

Samaritans – call 116 123 (open 24 hours a day)

We also have a self harm download available…


If you are concerned about yourself or someone you know who is experiencing any aspect of self harm, there are also many types of therapies available to help reduce your distress and process what else may be underlying these behaviours. The Blue Tree Clinic can offer a non-judgmental space to discuss any difficulties you may be suffering with, with Child and Adolescent consultations with one of our psychiatrists or clinical psychologists available on request. For any further information about what support may be on offer, feel free to get in touch now.