[Skip to content]

Teenager head in hands



What are the definitions of deliberate self-harm and suicide?

Definitions from the Mental Health Foundation (2003) are:

  • deliberate self-harm is self-harm without suicidal intent, resulting in non-fatal injury;
  • attempted suicide is self-harm with intent to take life, resulting in non-fatal injury;
  • suicide is self-harm, resulting in death.

The difference between suicide and deliberate self-harm is not always so clear. For example, deliberate self-harm is a common precursor to suicide, also children and young people who deliberately self-harm may kill themselves by accident.


‘Self-harm’ is a behaviour and not an illness. People self-harm to cope with emotional distress or to communicate that they are distressed.

Self-harm includes minor injury, as well as potentially life threatening and dangerous forms of injury, self poisoning and overdoses. Some people repeatedly injure themselves to escape painful feelings.

There are many types of self-harm, but these can include:

  • cutting;
  • burning;
  • scalding;
  • banging head and other body parts against walls;
  • hair-pulling;
  • biting;
  • swallowing things that are not edible;
  • inserting objects into the body;
  • self-poisoning;
  • scratching, picking or tearing at skin causing sores and scarring.

The rate of self-harm is relatively low in early childhood, but increases rapidly with the onset of adolescents. With girls/women more likely to self-harm then boys/men.

The children and young people who may be more vulnerable to self-harm include:

  • young people who are disadvantaged in socio-economic terms;
  • young people experiencing significant life events including relationship problems, bereavement and /or exams;
  • young people who have experienced victimisation in particular sexual abuse, and bullying;
  • young people in residential settings, such as the armed services, prison, sheltered housing, hostels and boarding schools;
  • lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people;
  • young Asian women (one study found that the suicide rate in women aged 16-24 years was three times higher in women of Asian origin than in white British women);
  • young people with learning disabilities;
  • young people with existing emotional, mental and/or physical health problems;
  • young people with substance misuse problems;
  • vulnerable young people who miss appointments and go off the radar.

Research indicates that 1 in 15 young people in Britain have harmed themselves. Most young people who harm themselves are between 11 and 25 years. Most people start at around 12 years of age, but there have been cases of children as young as 7 self-harming. Although there are no typical groups of people who self-harm.

Any child or young person who self-harms or expresses thoughts about this has to be taken seriously and appropriate help and intervention offered at that point.

Remember self-harm is a sign of distress and often indicates there are other problems, and young people who self-harm need to be monitored closely.

If a young person has overdosed or has injuries which put their health at risk, it is important to seek immediate help, by arranging for them to be taken safely to Accident and Emergency by calling 999.

If you work for an organisation with a child protection policy, follow the guidelines.

You can download self harm guidelines below:

Supporting children and young people who self-harm (pdf 1.6.MB opens in a new window)

Top of page

The National CAMHS Support Service produced a self-harm in children and young people handbook and an e-learning package, to provide basic knowledge and awareness of self-harm in children and young people, with advice about ways staff in children’s services can respond.

National CAMHS Support Service (external website)

The Child and Maternal Health Observatory (ChiMat) (external website)

Self-harm in children and young people handbook (pdf 1.0mb opens in a new window)

Coping with Self Harm Brochure (pdf 546kb opens in a new window)

Top of page

Useful Websites 


National Self-Harm Network

The National Self-Harm Network aims to support, empower and educate young people about self harm.

National Self-Harm Network (external website)

 Young Minds Parents’ Helpline

YoungMinds Parents’ Helpline offers free confidential online and telephone support to any adult worried about the emotional problems, behaviour or mental health of a child or young person up to the age of 25. Call them on 0808 802 5544 (Monday to Friday 9.30am-4pm), email parents@youngminds.org.uk or chat online (Monday to Friday 11am-1pm).

Young Minds (external website)

NHS Choices and Carers Direct

Information and advice online.

NHS Choices Carers Direct (external website)

and if very urgent, the emergency services. 

Royal College of Psychiatrists

Royal College of Psychiatrists (external website)

Youth Mental Health First Aid courses in the East Riding

Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) is a national two day course aimed at people working or living with young people (aged 11-18) who may be experiencing mental health problems. This also covers self-harm.

Top of page