Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

What causes self-harm?

There are many reasons why people self-harm, but the causes usually stem from unhappy emotions.

Self-harming has been described as a 'physical expression of emotional distress'. If somebody is feeling overwhelmed with unhappy emotions, they may find that the physical act of hurting themselves makes them feel better.

Social factors and trauma

Research has shown that social factors commonly cause emotional distress in people who self-harm. These include:

  • difficult relationships with friends or partners
  • difficulties at school, such as not doing well academically
  • difficulties at work
  • being bullied, either at home, school or work
  • worries about money
  • alcohol or drug misuse
  • coming to terms with your sexuality if you think you might be gay or bisexual
  • coping with cultural expectations, for example, an arranged marriage.

Self-harm could also sometimes be a way of coping with a traumatic experience. For example:

  • sexual, physical or emotional abuse, including domestic abuse and rape
  • the death of a close family member or friend
  • having a miscarriage.

Emotional distress

The distress from a traumatic experience or an unhappy situation can lead to feelings of low self-esteem or self-hatred. You could also have feelings of:

  • anger
  • guilt
  • anxiety
  • loneliness
  • grief
  • numbness or emptiness
  • feeling unconnected to the world
  • being unclean, unworthy, trapped or silenced if you have been abused.

The emotions can gradually build up inside you, and you may not know who to turn to for help. Self-harm may be a way of releasing these pent-up feelings and finding a way to cope with your problems. It is not usually an attempt to seek attention, but a sign of emotional distress.

Some research has suggested that people who self-harm may have difficulty managing or 'regulating' their emotions. They use self-harm as a way of managing tension and anger. Research has also shown that people who self-harm are poorer at problem-solving.

Self-harm is linked to anxiety and depression. These mental health conditions can affect people of any age. Self-harm can also occur alongside antisocial behaviour, such as misbehaving at school or getting into trouble with the police.

Psychological causes

In some cases there may be a psychological reason for the self-harming (where the cause is related to an issue with your mind). For example:

  • you may hear voices telling you to self-harm
  • you may have repeated thoughts about self-harming and feel like you have to do it
  • you may disassociate (lose touch with yourself and your surroundings) and self-harm without realising you are doing it
  • it can be a symptom of borderline personality disorder (a condition that causes instability in how a person thinks, feels and behaves).

Source: NHS Choices, UK (Causes of self-harm)

Last reviewed: August 2015

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Found 81 results

Suicide and Self-Harm - Orygen, The National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health

People who engage in self-harm deliberately hurt their bodies. The term 'self-harm' (also referred to as 'deliberate self-injury' or parasuicide) refers to a range of behaviours, not a mental disorder or illness.

Read more on Orygen, The National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health website

Self-harm

Self-harm refers to people deliberately hurting their bodies. Its usually done in secret and on parts of the body that may not be seen by others. The most common type of self-harm is cutting, but there are many other ways of self-harming including burning or punching the body, or picking skin or sores.

Read more on beyondblue website

Self-harm

What is self-harm? Self-harm means any behaviour which involves the deliberate causing of pain or injury to oneself – usually as an extreme way of trying to cope with distressing or painful feelings.

Read more on Mi Networks website

Deliberate self-harm and suicide

All self-harm deserves serious assessment. If you are concerned that a member of your family is self-harming, then seek help from your family doctor or local mental health service.

Read more on LIFE - Living is for Everyone website

Self-harm: what is it?

Self-harm involves deliberately physically harming oneself.

Read more on Project Air Strategy for Personality Disorders website

Self-harm and teenagers - ReachOut Parents

Learn about self-harm and get tips on supporting your teenager who may be self-harming.

Read more on ReachOut.com website

Self-harm

Self-harm means any behaviour which involves the deliberate causing of pain or injury to oneself usually as an extreme way of trying to cope with di...

Read more on SANE Australia website

Self-harm | ReachOut Australia

Self-harm is often a way of coping with strong emotions. It can be hard to change self-harming behvaiours but with the right help you can learn more positive coping skills.

Read more on ReachOut.com website

What is self-harm? | Self-harm | ReachOut Australia

There are many reasons why someone self-harms, but most often its a way of coping with difficult emotions.

Read more on ReachOut.com website

Cutting or self harm

Trusted information about cutting or self harm, including what, how and what next from leading Australian health organisations.

Read more on mindhealthconnect website

Check your symptoms Find a health service

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice and information you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo
Feedback