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Self-harm can be hard to understand. There are lots of myths about who self-harms, why they hurt themselves, and what people can do to help.

These myths can be confusing – and they can make it harder for people who self-harm to get the help and support they need.

We spoke to Dr Ritu Mitra, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, to find out the truth behind the myths and what young people can do if they know someone who has hurt themselves on purpose.

Self-harm myths. An illustration of a brown-skinned adult, with long dark hair and a NHS lanyard is talking to a young person. The young person has light skin, short dark hair, and pink glasses. They’re sharing their thoughts. The room they’re in is calm, with plants and art.

Myth one: only certain people self-harm, and they all hurt themselves in the same way

‘The reality is, self-harm can present differently in each individual that may use it as a coping strategy. It should not be thought of as being attributed to who they may be friends with or what kind of music they listen to’.

As well as this, it’s important to know that self-harm describes any situation where somewhere hurts themselves on purpose. It’s important to remember that it’s often in circumstances where the individual is highly distressed, and they can’t find any other way to cope. Dr Mitra says that there are lots of methods that people might use to hurt themselves, and some aren’t talked about as much.

‘It’s important for young people to feel that they can talk about self-harm and ask for help,’ says Dr Mitra. ‘Whether it’s a case of physically injuring themselves, misusing alcohol or drugs, putting themselves in unsafe situations, or whether it’s to do with food and eating.

‘We hope that there can be less of a stigma around self-harm so individuals can get the support they need’.

Myth two: people self-harm because they’re attention seeking

‘The truth is, a lot of people hide their self-harm,’ Dr Mitra says. ‘When people unhelpfully say self-harm is ‘attention seeking’, it can make it harder for people to ask for help and they can feel misunderstood and judged.

‘Different people self-harm for different reasons. It’s usually a way for people to cope with difficult thoughts or feelings. You might hear people talking about expressing something that’s hard to put into words, reducing overwhelming thoughts or feelings, punishing themselves, or getting rid of a numb feeling’.

For some people, self-harm is a way to show others that they need help. ‘If you’ve self-harmed as a way of bringing attention to yourself,’ says Dr Mitra, ‘you always need compassion and support and especially from the health professionals seeing you’.

‘It’s OK to want other people to know how much you’re struggling. Over time, and with the right support, you can learn other ways to ask for the attention and help you need’.

Myth three: self-harm isn’t a big deal – everyone does it

‘Lots of people who self-harm find that, in the short term, it’s a way to cope,’ explains Dr Mitra. ‘But any relief is short lived; it can often make you feel worse due to associated guilt or shame’.

It’s important to remember that ‘Self-harm doesn’t help you deal with the reason you’re hurting yourself. And self-harm carries risks. When you get support, we aim to help you finder healthier strategies to manage’.

Myth four: all people who self-harm want to die

Dr Mitra says that ‘Sadly, some people who self-harm might also experience suicidal thoughts or feelings – but they don’t always come together.

‘Self-harm is usually a way for people to cope and manage when things are difficult – it doesn’t always mean someone wants to die, and someone’s self-harm isn’t necessarily an attempt to end their life’.

Myth five: self-harm is something to be ashamed of and keep secret

‘It’s really sad to think that there are young people struggling with self-harm and not getting the support they need,’ says Dr Mitra. If you’ve hurt yourself, you’re not alone and you don’t have to feel ashamed or guilty.

Dr Mitra says that ‘Every young person deserves people to listen to them and help them find other ways to cope and manage. Some young people might speak to an adult they trust, use certain grounding techniques, or distract themselves until the urge passes’.

If you don’t feel ready to speak to anyone you know, you can always text NATTER to 85258 – the volunteers who answer texts are used to supporting people who struggle with self-harm, and it’s anonymous and confidential unless they’re concerned for your safety.

Myth six: there’s nothing I can do if my friend has hurt themselves – I should just pretend not to notice

‘It’s really difficult when you’re worried about a friend – especially if you think they might have self-harmed,’ says Dr Mitra. ‘It’s not your responsibility to fix things (and just telling them to stop isn’t likely to work, if anything, it may make them feel you don’t understand), but you can offer some support.

‘You can remind them of their positive qualities and why they’re your friend. You can also encourage them to speak to an adult at school, college, or home – or their GP. Again, texting NATTER to 85258 is a great step for anyone who’s not sure how to start talking about self-harm.

‘It’s also important to take time to look after yourself. It can be stressful and worrying to see your friends struggling, so it’s a good idea to talk to an adult you trust about what’s been going on’.