NHS Lothian

Helping a loved one who self-harms

3 min read

Finding out that a loved one self-harms 

Whether the person tells you, or you think someone might be hurting themselves, it can be difficult to know how best to approach the situation.  

You may feel shocked, angry, disgusted, helpless, responsible or any mix of difficult emotions.  

It can help to know that nobody wants to self-harm. A person who is harming themselves is likely to be highly distressed. They will need support from someone who is calm and understanding.  

Try not to panic or overreact. Just telling a person not to do something, isn’t going to help. Making them feel ashamed or guilty about what theyre doing is likely to increase their distress.  

A person who self-harms often wants to stop, but they don’t know how to stop. He or she has no better way of dealing with the difficulties theyre having or the distress theyre experiencing.  

What can help?

There are several things you can do to help. Your response and attitude towards the person who self-harms are key in helping them feel supported. Here are a few things to keep in mind: 

  • Try to be non-judgemental 
  • Recognise that your loved one is in a lot distress, even if they don’t seem to be. Encourage their attempts to control their self-harm and don’t be discouraging or angry if they don’t work.  
  • Keep an accepting attitude towards them. Let the person know that youre there for them. 
  • Try to have empathy and understand that this is their way of coping. 
  • Let them be in control of decisions. 
  • Encourage your loved one to stay in company, where they will be less likely to harm themselves 
  • Offer to help them find support [link to support section] 
  • Remind them of their positive qualities and the things they do well.  
  • Try to have an open and honest conversation where you take responsibility for any fears you have.  
What doesn’t help?

Despite the best intentions in the world, sometimes attempts to help can backfire. Here are some potential pitfalls: 

  • Trying to force the person to change. 
  • Acting or communicating in a way thats threatening or attempting to take control away from your loved one.  
  • Either ignoring or overly focusing on their injuries. 
  • Labelling self-harm as ‘attention seeking’.  

Although it’s seldom the case, if a person is self-harming as a way of asking for attention, remember that there is nothing wrong with wanting attention. High levels of distress can get in the way of a person’s ability to be direct about what they need.  

Take care of yourself

Providing support for someone who self-harms can be a long processwith many ups and downs. Taking care of yourself is key to your ability to continue supporting your loved one. Here are a few things that can be helpful to put in place:  

  • Set clear boundaries about how much and what support you can offer 
  • Find out about what other support [link to support section] is available  
  • Get support and information for yourself. The guides in the ‘Manage section of this website [link to manage] can help you understand self-harm better. 


Supporting your loved one to stay safe

Itnormal to be worried about the safety of someone who self-harms. You may feel scared that your loved one will seriously hurt themselves or even take their own life. While its understandable that you may have these fears, remember that self-harm doesn’t usually mean that someone wants to end their life 

small number of people do go on to take their own lifehowever, either intentionally or accidentally. Thats why its so important to have an open, honest and compassionate conversation with your loved one about keeping safe, making sure that they know when and how to ask for help.  

Urgent Help


If you, or someone you know, is in crisis and in imminent danger of causing harm to themselves or others, call 999 immediately

Help within 24 hours