How to Help a Friend Who is Self-Harming

Be a lifeline for a friend who self-harms. Learn how to help with compassion and understanding in this guide on how to help a friend who is self-harming.

February 1, 2024

Understanding Self-Harm

When supporting a friend who is self-harming, it is important to have a clear understanding of what self-harm entails, the signs and symptoms to look out for, and the underlying reasons why individuals engage in self-harming behaviors.

What is Self-Harm?

Self-harm, also known as self-injury, is the act of intentionally causing physical harm to oneself as a way to cope with emotional pain or distress. It is crucial to approach the topic of self-harm with sensitivity and empathy, as it is often a manifestation of deep emotional struggles rather than a cry for attention.

Self-harm can take various forms, including cutting, burning, scratching, hitting, or biting oneself. It is essential to recognize that self-harm is a complex issue and should not be dismissed or trivialized. If you suspect a friend may be engaging in self-harm, it is important to offer support and understanding.

Signs and Symptoms of Self-Harm

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of self-harm is crucial in helping a friend who may be struggling. While self-harm can be challenging to detect, there are several indicators to be aware of:

  • Unexplained frequent injuries, such as cuts, burns, or bruises, typically in discrete or hidden areas of the body.
  • Wearing concealing clothing, even in warm weather, to cover up self-inflicted wounds.
  • Finding sharp objects, like razors or knives, in their belongings.
  • Expressing feelings of emptiness, hopelessness, or extreme distress.
  • Withdrawing from social activities and isolating themselves from friends and loved ones.
  • Significant changes in mood, including irritability, sadness, or anxiety.

It is important to approach these signs with compassion and empathy, providing a safe space for your friend to open up about their struggles.

Why People Self-Harm

Understanding the underlying reasons why individuals engage in self-harm is crucial to providing appropriate support. While the reasons can vary from person to person, some common factors may include:

  • Emotional regulation: Self-harm can serve as a coping mechanism to alleviate overwhelming emotional pain or distress temporarily.
  • Self-punishment: Some individuals may engage in self-harm as a form of self-punishment for perceived failures or guilt.
  • Expressing inner turmoil: For individuals who struggle to communicate their emotions, self-harm may serve as a way to express their internal struggles.
  • Seeking control: Self-harm can provide individuals with a sense of control over their bodies and emotions when other aspects of their life feel chaotic or overwhelming.

It is important to remember that self-harm is not a healthy or effective long-term coping strategy. Encouraging a friend to seek professional help and providing support can be essential in helping them find healthier ways to cope with their emotional challenges.

By understanding what self-harm is, recognizing the signs and symptoms, and empathizing with the underlying reasons, you can better support your friend in their journey to recovery. Remember to approach the topic with sensitivity and encourage them to seek professional help.

The Role of Friendship

When it comes to helping a friend who is self-harming, friendship plays a crucial role. Friends can be a lifeline for someone struggling with self-harm, providing the support and understanding they need during difficult times. In this section, we will explore the importance of supporting a friend and building trust through open communication.

Importance of Supporting a Friend

Supporting a friend who is self-harming is essential for their well-being and recovery. Your presence and empathy can make a significant difference in their journey towards healing. By showing your concern and offering non-judgmental support, you create a safe space for your friend to express their feelings and experiences. Your support can help alleviate their sense of isolation and provide them with the strength to seek help.

Remember that supporting a friend who is self-harming does not mean you have to fix their problems or take on the role of a therapist. Instead, your role is to be there for them, listen to their struggles, and encourage them to seek professional help when necessary. By being a compassionate friend, you can help them feel less alone and more supported throughout their recovery process.

Building Trust and Open Communication

Building trust is vital when supporting a friend who is self-harming. It allows them to confide in you and feel comfortable seeking help. Here are some tips for building trust and fostering open communication:

  1. Be non-judgmental: Approach conversations with an open mind and without passing judgment. Avoid making assumptions or criticizing their actions. Instead, focus on listening and understanding their emotions and experiences.
  2. Maintain confidentiality: Respect your friend's privacy and keep their self-harm journey confidential unless they are at immediate risk of harm. Reassure them that you are there to support them and that their trust is valued.
  3. Validate their feelings: Show empathy and validate your friend's emotions. Let them know that their feelings are valid and that you are there to support them unconditionally. Acknowledge their pain and struggles without minimizing or dismissing their experiences.
  4. Encourage open communication: Create a safe space for your friend to openly share their thoughts and feelings. Let them know that they can reach out to you at any time and that you are there to listen without judgment.
  5. Offer resources: Familiarize yourself with resources available to help individuals who self-harm. Provide them with information about professional help, such as therapy or counseling options.

Remember, supporting a friend who is self-harming can be emotionally challenging. It's important to take care of your own well-being and seek support when needed. By building trust and maintaining open communication, you can be a valuable source of support for your friend as they navigate their journey towards healing.

How to Help a Friend Who is Self-Harming

Discovering that a friend is self-harming can be distressing and overwhelming. However, offering your support and understanding can make a significant difference in their journey towards recovery. Here are some ways you can help a friend who is self-harming.

Educate Yourself about Self-Harm

Before approaching your friend, take the time to educate yourself about self-harm. Gain a better understanding of what self-harm is and why people engage in it. This knowledge will help you approach the situation with empathy and compassion.

Approach with Compassion and Empathy

When you're ready to discuss your concerns with your friend, approach the conversation with compassion and empathy. Choose a calm and private setting where they feel comfortable opening up. Let them know that you care about their well-being and that you're there to support them. Avoid judgment or expressing shock, as this may cause them to withdraw.

Active Listening and Validation

Listen actively and attentively when your friend opens up about their self-harming behavior. Allow them to express their feelings and experiences without interruption. Show that you understand by acknowledging their emotions and thoughts. Validate their struggles and let them know that their feelings are valid. Remember, your role is to provide support, not to solve their problems.

It's important to note that while you want to be supportive, you are not a mental health professional. It is crucial to encourage your friend to seek professional help, as they may require specialized treatment for their self-harming behavior.

Offer to help them find resources such as therapists, counselors, or support groups. Be prepared with a list of helplines or mental health organizations that they can contact for assistance. Remember, the decision to seek professional help ultimately lies with your friend, but your guidance can be invaluable in their journey towards recovery.

Creating a Supportive Environment

In addition to professional help, you can create a supportive environment for your friend. Encourage healthy coping mechanisms such as journaling, engaging in creative activities, or practicing relaxation techniques. Offer to participate in positive activities together to provide distractions from self-harming urges.

Maintain a non-judgmental and open-minded approach. Let your friend know that they can confide in you without fear of rejection or criticism. Keep their trust by respecting their privacy and not discussing their self-harming behavior without their consent.

Taking Care of Yourself

Supporting a friend who is self-harming can be emotionally draining. It's essential to set boundaries and prioritize your own well-being. Recognize when you need support and seek it from trusted individuals or mental health resources. Practice self-care activities that help you relax and recharge.

Remember, helping a friend who is self-harming requires patience, understanding, and professional guidance. Your support can make a significant impact, but it's essential to encourage them to seek specialized help from mental health professionals. By educating yourself, approaching with compassion, actively listening, and creating a supportive environment, you can be a lifeline for your friend on their journey towards recovery.

Encouraging Professional Help

When supporting a friend who is self-harming, it's essential to encourage them to seek professional help. Mental health professionals play a crucial role in providing the necessary guidance and support for individuals struggling with self-harm. Here are some steps you can take to encourage your friend to seek professional help:

The Role of Mental Health Professionals

Mental health professionals, such as therapists, psychologists, and counselors, are trained to address the underlying issues that may contribute to self-harm. They provide a safe and confidential space for individuals to express their thoughts and emotions, helping them develop healthier coping mechanisms.

These professionals can assess the severity of self-harm behaviors, identify any co-occurring mental health conditions, and work with individuals to create personalized treatment plans. The goal is to foster resilience, enhance emotional well-being, and reduce self-harming behaviors.

Suggesting Therapy or Counseling

When discussing professional help with your friend, it's important to approach the topic with sensitivity and understanding. Gently suggest the idea of therapy or counseling as a means of exploring their emotions and finding healthier ways to cope with their struggles. Emphasize that seeking professional help is not a sign of weakness, but rather a courageous step towards healing and growth.

You can mention that therapy or counseling offers a therapeutic alliance with a trained professional who can provide guidance, support, and evidence-based interventions. Encourage your friend to consider the benefits of talking to someone who is neutral, non-judgmental, and equipped to help them navigate their emotions.

Offering to Help Find Resources

Offering assistance in finding appropriate mental health resources can alleviate some of the burdens your friend may face when seeking help. Research local therapists, counseling centers, or mental health clinics that specialize in self-harm, depression, or anxiety. Share this information with your friend, emphasizing that you are there to support them throughout the process.

Additionally, you can provide them with online resources, such as articles or helpline numbers, where they can find further information or immediate support.

Remember, while you can encourage and support your friend in seeking professional help, it is ultimately their decision. Be patient, understanding, and continue to offer your unwavering support as they navigate their journey towards recovery.

Creating a Supportive Environment

When supporting a friend who is self-harming, it's important to create a supportive environment that promotes healing and encourages healthier coping mechanisms. By offering positive alternatives and being a non-judgmental presence, you can play a significant role in their journey towards recovery.

Encouraging Healthy Coping Mechanisms

Encouraging your friend to develop healthy coping mechanisms is crucial in helping them navigate their emotions and find healthier ways to cope with distress. Some effective coping strategies that can be suggested include:

  • Engaging in physical activities such as exercise, yoga, or dancing to release pent-up emotions and promote endorphin release.
  • Encouraging creative outlets like writing, drawing, or playing a musical instrument to express emotions in a constructive manner.
  • Exploring relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises, meditation, or mindfulness to reduce stress and promote emotional well-being.
  • Suggesting participation in support groups or therapy sessions where they can learn from others facing similar challenges and receive professional guidance.

By focusing on these positive coping mechanisms, you can help your friend develop healthier ways to manage their emotions and reduce the urge to self-harm.

Providing Distractions and Positive Activities

Offering distractions and engaging in positive activities with your friend can help redirect their attention and provide a sense of enjoyment and fulfillment. Some ideas for positive activities include:

  • Going for a walk or engaging in outdoor activities together to provide a change of scenery and promote physical well-being.
  • Watching a movie, reading a book, or listening to music together to provide an escape from distressing emotions.
  • Encouraging participation in hobbies or activities they enjoy, such as painting, gardening, or cooking, to foster a sense of accomplishment and boost their mood.
  • Planning outings with friends or engaging in social activities to create a support network and reduce feelings of isolation.

By actively engaging in positive activities, you can help your friend find joy and fulfillment in healthier ways, reducing their reliance on self-harming behaviors.

Offering a Non-Judgmental Ear

Being a non-judgmental and empathetic listener is crucial when supporting a friend who is self-harming. Create a safe space where they feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and emotions without fear of criticism or judgment. Some key principles to keep in mind include:

  • Listen attentively and validate their feelings without minimizing or dismissing their experiences.
  • Avoid offering unsolicited advice or trying to fix their problems. Instead, focus on empathizing and understanding their perspective.
  • Remain patient and supportive, even if progress is slow. Recovery is a journey, and your consistent presence can make a significant difference.

Remember, if you ever feel overwhelmed or unsure about how to respond, don't hesitate to seek guidance from mental health professionals or support organizations. They can provide you with the necessary tools and resources to effectively support your friend.

Creating a supportive environment involves encouraging healthy coping mechanisms, providing positive distractions, and being a non-judgmental listener. By offering these forms of support, you can help your friend on their path to recovery and provide them with the strength they need to overcome self-harm.

Taking Care of Yourself

When supporting a friend who is self-harming, it's essential to prioritize your own well-being. Taking care of yourself enables you to provide the necessary support and assistance to your friend. Here are some key aspects to consider when it comes to self-care in these challenging situations.

Setting Boundaries

While it's important to be there for your friend, it's equally crucial to establish and maintain healthy boundaries. It's natural to want to help and be available at all times, but it's essential to recognize your limits. Setting boundaries ensures that you are not overwhelmed by the emotional toll of supporting someone who is self-harming.

Establishing boundaries can include defining specific times when you are available to talk or meet, and being clear about what you can and cannot provide in terms of support. Communicate these boundaries with empathy and understanding, explaining that it is necessary for both of your well-being. Remember, you cannot be responsible for solving all of your friend's problems alone.

Seeking Support for Yourself

Supporting a friend who is self-harming can be emotionally challenging and may take a toll on your own mental health. It is crucial to seek support for yourself as you navigate this difficult situation. Reach out to trusted friends, family members, or other supportive individuals who can provide a listening ear or guidance.

Consider joining a support group or seeking professional help if needed. Therapy or counseling can provide a safe space for you to process your emotions and gain additional coping strategies. Remember, you do not have to face this alone, and seeking support for yourself is an important part of the process.

Practicing Self-Care

Engaging in self-care activities is vital to maintain your own well-being while supporting a friend who is self-harming. Self-care looks different for everyone, but it involves engaging in activities that promote relaxation, stress reduction, and overall emotional well-being.

Some self-care practices you can consider include:

  • Engaging in hobbies or activities you enjoy
  • Practicing mindfulness or meditation
  • Exercising regularly to release stress and tension
  • Spending time in nature
  • Getting enough restful sleep
  • Maintaining a healthy diet
  • Avoiding excessive alcohol or substance use

By prioritizing your own self-care, you are better equipped to support your friend in their journey towards recovery.

Remember, assisting a friend who is self-harming requires a delicate balance between being there for them and taking care of yourself. Setting boundaries, seeking support, and practicing self-care are essential aspects of maintaining your own well-being in order to provide the support your friend needs.


In conclusion, supporting a friend who is self-harming can be a challenging and emotionally draining experience. It requires empathy, patience, and a non-judgmental approach to help your friend navigate their journey towards recovery. Encouraging them to seek professional help, creating a supportive environment, and prioritizing your own well-being are all essential aspects of providing effective support. Remember that every individual's journey towards recovery is unique, and progress may take time. However, with the right support and guidance, it is possible to overcome self-harm behaviors and develop healthier coping mechanisms. By offering unwavering support and being there for your friend in their time of need, you can make a significant difference in their lives.