About self-harm
What causes self-harm?
Is it just attention seeking?

About self-harm

Self-harm is a behaviour and not an illness. People self-harm to cope with distress or to communicate that they are distressed. It includes self-poisoning and overdoses, minor injury, as well as potentially dangerous and life threatening forms of injury. It does not mean body piercing, getting a tattoo, unusual sex or the recreational use of drugs and alcohol. Some people who self-harm are suicidal at the time. Others report never feeling suicidal. This guide is for adults who have engaged in self-harm. It aims to inform them of the best possible assessment, treatment and support and what to expect of services intended to reduce self-harm and its related suffering.

Self-harm is more common among younger people. In any year, more than 25,000 people are admitted to hospitals in Australia as a result of self-harm. Self-harm accounts for approximately 10% of all hospitalisations of young people aged 1 5 to 19 in New Zealand, 92% of them being due to self-poisoning. Thousands more are treated in emergency departments but these cases are not included in the statistic above. Usually, more women than men self-harm. Women more commonly take overdoses than men. Overdose is the most common form of self-harm in both Australia and New Zealand.

Self-harm is always serious. It can cause disability and death. It is also serious because it means that a person is seriously emotionally distressed at the time of the injury. Top of page

What causes self-harm?

There is no one cause for self-harm. However, research suggests that some people seem to be more at risk than others. These include:
  • Those under stress or in crisis, and those who have self-harmed before
  • Those with mental disorders (eg, anxiety, depression or schizophrenia)
  • Those who misuse alcohol or other substances or have these addictions
  • Those who have experienced childhood trauma or abuse
  • Those who have a debilitating or chronic illness.

Is it just attention seeking?

Some people think that self-harm is 'just attention seeking'. This attitude is unhelpful and it trivialises self-harm and the distress the person is feeling at the time.

This attitude does not take into account that people who self-harm have genuine difficulties coping. Research shows that people who self-harm often have problem-solving difficulties and they find it particularly hard to ask for help. They tend to have memories that over generalise from experience and forget how they solved a similar problem in the past. They get stuck when trying to solve a current problem. This can lead to frustration and to feeling out of control.

For other people, self-harm may indicate that they are experiencing symptoms of a mental illness (eg, major depression or schizophrenia).