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Self Harm

Guidance created in partnership with Mind.

What is self-harm?

Self-harm is when someone hurts themselves as a way of dealing with or expressing difficult thoughts and feelings. There are lots of things that could be described as self-harm. Here are some of the most common forms:

  • cutting or scratching the skin
  • biting, punching or banging
  • burning or scalding
  • pulling or excessively plucking hair
  • poisoning
  • taking overdoses

Self-harm doesn’t always leave marks on the body, and people may put lots of effort into hiding any injuries.

Many people use self-harm as a coping mechanism, when they are struggling with difficult emotions. Between one in 12 and one in 15 children and young people deliberately self-harm according to a report from the Mental Health Foundation (2006). 

On average, this is two young people in every secondary school classroom who have hurt themselves as a means of coping with distress.

Some people may think that self-harm is the same as a suicide attempt, but this isn’t true. Even where someone may have taken an overdose, they may be intending to harm themselves rather than trying to end their life.

Why do young people self-harm?

It’s important to understand that there are lots of different reasons why someone might self-harm, and you should try not to make any assumptions.

For many people, self-harm is a coping mechanism that they can use when they are dealing with difficult thoughts and feelings. Although you may feel like the most important thing is changing the self-harming behaviour, it’s often more important to recognise the reasons someone might be doing this. Some people will understand why they are hurting themselves, whereas others will be less sure.

It may be that they can be linked to difficult life experiences (eg. abuse, bullying, family break up) or stresses at school.

Self harm may be linked to feelings such as feeling numb or unable to express emotions, feeling overwhelmed, feeling a lack of control or wanting someone to notice their distress. It may be linked to problems such as abuse, bullying, bereavement or stresses at school.

Myth: Self-harm is just a way of attention seeking.   
Fact: Self-harm is a coping strategy. People self-harm because they're finding something difficult and painful. They could also be trying to show that something is wrong. They need to be taken seriously.

Myth: Self-harm is rare in young people.
Fact: Lots of people self-harm. There's lots of secrecy around self-harm and because many people do not talk about it, it's hard to know exactly how many people are self-harming. Between 1 in 12 and 1 in 15 young people deliberately self-harm according to a report from the Mental Health Foundation (2006).

Myth: Self-harm is only serious if the injuries are serious too.    
Fact: People often think that if the injury isn’t extreme then it’s not as much of a problem. However, the focus should be on the emotions that are causing people to harm themselves, not the behaviour that they’re engaging in.

Myth: Once you have self-harmed, you can't stop.
Fact: People can self-harm just once or twice. Some use self-harm over a long period of time. The frequency of the self-harm varies. Many people do stop self-harming, but only when they are ready. This could be when they sort their problems out or when they find other ways to deal with their feelings.

How should I respond to someone who is self-harming?

If you become aware or a young person discloses that they self-harm, the most important thing you can do is stay calm and non-judgemental.

It can be a big step for a young person to start talking about what is happening for them. 

Giving a calm and non-judgmental response can help the young person feel able to speak more openly and access support services.

You should reassure the young person that it’s ok to talk about their self-harm, and that you will support them even if you don’t understand why they are doing it or how they are feeling. You can let them know that there are lots of forms of support available. 

  • Confirm if they're injured at the moment and if they are, ask if they need medical attention. This is important, because injuries could be serious or at risk of infection.
  • Appear calm and don’t demand to see their injuries. The young person may interpret this negatively, such as that you don’t believe them 
  • Always inform their parent or carer (either directly or via the Safeguarding team) that the young person is injuring themselves, unless it's believed that this contact would put the young person at further risk of harm. In this case, or if you're unsure what to do, you should contact the Safeguarding team at Scout HQ for advice. A few exceptions may be made, if the young person is about to become an adult (nearly 18 years old) and is able to made independent decisions, but discuss with the Safeguarding team first.
  • Follow the procedures for reporting concern about the welfare of a young person, as per the Yellow Card.

What support is there for young people who are self-harming?

If a referral needs to be made to a specialist service (such as Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services – CAMHS), the referral is completed by the Safeguarding Team.

The first stage is that Safeguarding is likely to seek advice from Children's Services and may be asked by them to make a referral. Volunteers are not expected to make a referral on behalf of a young person or the people they live with.

What you can do is make the young person or parent and carer, as appropriate, aware of support that is available. It may be useful to have information about relevant support organisations available at your meeting place.

The young person could seek support through their GP, a counsellor, or by contacting a Mental Health Organisation. A young person can be directed to useful Mental Health Organisations and can access support in several ways through these agencies. 

Information and support can be accessed online, but it’s important to be aware that there'll also be misleading or harmful content online too.

Remember, just being involved in a supportive environment within Scouts and the positive relationships made there, can make a big difference. Just being supportive and understanding can have a very positive affect.

How do we support the volunteers who are supporting the young person who is self-harming?

Volunteers or other adults in Scouts should not become the main support for a young person who is self-harming. This places additional stress on the adult, which may not be recognised because the focus is on the young person.

The major support needs to be identified outside Scouts, and this aspect of the work will be overseen by The Safeguarding Team. Always contact the Safeguarding Team at Scout HQ for advice.

Mental Health Organisations

A range of Mental Health Organisations, who can provide support for both young people and adults.

Find support


Harmless is a Community Interest Company – CIC for short - offering support, advice, information and training on self-harm

Visit Harmless website

Mind's advice on Self-harm

Visit the Mind website

Contact the safeguarding team

Scouts Safeguarding Team

Phone: 020 8433 7164


Report a concern
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