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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:
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.

Myths and facts about self-harm

Myth: Self-harm is just a way of attention seeking.   
Fact: Self-harm is a coping strategy. People self-harm because they are 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 is lots of secrecy around self-harm and because many people do not talk about it, it is hard to know exactly how many are self-harming. 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).

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.

Once you have self-harmed you cannot 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. 

If a young person makes you aware that they have harmed themselves, you should:

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

If a referral needs to be made to a specialist service (eg. Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services – CAMHS), the referral is completed by The Scout Association 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 their family. 

What you can do, is make the young person or parent/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 specialist organisation.  Information and support can be accessed online, but it’s important to be aware that there will also be misleading or harmful content online. A young person can be directed to useful websites such as the NSPCC or Young Minds, and can access support in several ways through these agencies. There are some useful sources of information and support below.

Remember, just being involved in a supportive environment within Scouting 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?

Leaders or other adults in Scouting 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 Scouting, and this aspect of the work will be overseen by The Safeguarding Team. Always call the Safeguarding Team at Headquarters for advice.

Further information and support organisations

The Scout Association Safeguarding Team
020 8433 7164

0800 1111
Telephone and online support for young people

User-led organisations offering support, advice, information and training on self-harm

Life Signs
User-led organisation offering peer support, and advice to family and friends. Produce factsheets, including Read this first before you harm

Information about mental health, including information on self-harm

0808 800 5000
Information for people who are worried about a child, or who work with children and need information and advice

Information for young people about a range of mental health problems, including self-harm. Also offer a helpline for parents who are worried about the mental health of a young person.

The Scout Association has developed an introductory e-learning pathway with MindEd, to provide further information and guidance on young people's mental health. This contains an e-learning module entitled 'Eating Problems'.  For more information, click here

Guidance created in partnership with Mind.


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