What are the warning signs?

For many people who self-harm, the act of harming themselves is something they try to keep secret. Adolescents hide their self-harming from teachers, friends and family, while adults may have partners, friends and workmates, and in some cases their children, from whom they hide their self-harm. Some people may have one or two close friends who know that they self-harm, but in many cases family and friends might only suspect that something is going on with their family member or friend or be completely unaware.

While there are obvious signs that someone is self-harming, such as exposed cuts and burns, and overdoses that require intervention, there are some less obvious signs that someone may be self-harming.

Psychological signs
  • Dramatic changes in mood
  • Changes in eating and sleeping patterns
  • Losing interest in friends and social activities
  • Breakdown in regular communications with family or friends
  • Hiding clothes or washing own clothes separately
  • No longer interested in favorite things or activities
  • Problems with relationships
  • Low self-esteem
  • Being secretive about feelings
  • Avoiding situations where they have to expose arms or legs,
g. swimming
  • Strange excuses for injuries
  • Dramatic drop in performance and interactions at school, work or home
  • Withdrawing from usual life.
Physical signs
  • Unexplained injuries, such as scratches or burn marks
  • Unexplained recurrent medical complaints such as stomach pains and headaches
  • Wearing clothes inappropriate to conditions, e.g. long sleeves and pants in the middle of summer
  • Pulling hair or picking at fingers or skin when upset or stressed
  • Hiding matches, tablets, razors or other sharp objects in unusual places, such as back of drawers, under the bed, in back of cupboard
  • Use of drugs

What can lead to self-harm?

Some factors that can predispose people to self-harm include:

  • Neglect and abandonment in early life
  • Bullying in or out of school
  • Lack of basic problem-solving skills
  • Dysfunctional family life 

  • Drug and alcohol use in parents
  • Stress and depression
  • Childhood trauma or abuse

What can I do to help?

Finding out that someone you care about is hurting themselves is tough. Many people can’t understand why someone would want to hurt themselves. It’s hard not to take it personally and wanting to convince the person to stop.

Here are some tips for helping someone who self-harms:


– Self-harm is a complex behavior that may go on for a long time. It is important that you have the support and advice of a health professional.


– When people self-harm, they don’t do it to intentionally make you feel bad or guilty. Even if it feels like they are trying to manipulate you, that may not be the reason they self-harm.


– If you’re able to, sit down with the young person and make a plan about what to do if he or she feel like self-harming or has self-harmed. This might make things feel safer for you and the young person. This may also reduce the ‘secrecy’ around the self-harming and make the young person feel supported. If in doubt, talk to a health professional.


– Often, people react by making a big fuss about the self-harm and become upset, angry or both. This may make the situation worse as the young person is already trying to cope with his/her own emotions. They may then self-harm in secret because they fear your reaction. In a calm voice, ask the young person if he/she want to talk – this leaves the control in their hands about this. Make the initial approach but don’t push them.
Being supportive doesn’t mean you’re saying the behavior is OK – it’s saying that you want to be there for the young person to help him/her. You might start by saying, “People hurt themselves when they are feeling bad. Do you want to talk to me about it?”


– A normal reaction to self-harm is to tell the person not to do it or that
it makes you feel bad. This often leads to the young person feeling guilty and they may start to hide their self-harm so you don’t feel this way.


– This is really difficult! You will need time to adjust. Make sure you are taking care of your own needs, as well as those of the person you care about. The more you are able to relax, the easier it will be to deal with the self-harm.


– Most people feel completely out of their depth when it comes to self-harm. It’s OK if you feel uncomfortable with it and it’s ok if you don’t feel able to talk about it. Let the young person know this and together seek out the assistance of a health professional such as a psychologist, psychiatrist or counsellor (see also the page “where can I turn to?”).


– Some people feel sick at the thought that someone they know is hurting themselves. Try to understand what the issues behind the self-harm are and how you can support that young person to find different ways of coping.

Where can I turn to?

Why do people commit suicide?

In attempting suicide, a person is really trying to stop an unbearable emotional pain. The person is so distressed and overwhelmed by his/her situation that he/she cannot see any other option.

Suicide and suicidal behaviors often occur in people with one or more of the following:

People who try to take their own life are often trying to get away from a situation that seems impossible to deal with. Many who attempt suicide are seeking relief from:

  • Feeling ashamed, guilty, or like a burden to others
  • Feeling like a victim
  • Feelings of rejection, loss, or loneliness

Most suicide attempts do not result in death. Many of these attempts are done in a way that makes rescue possible. Some people attempt suicide in a way that is less likely to be fatal, such as poisoning or overdose. Men are more likely to choose violent methods, such as shooting themselves. As a result, suicide attempts by men are more likely to result in death.

Relatives of people who attempt or complete suicide often blame themselves or become very angry. They may see the suicide attempt as selfish. However, people who attempt suicide often mistakenly believe that they are doing their friends and relatives a favor by taking themselves out of the world which is of course not correct.

What are the risk factors?

Suicidal behaviors may occur when there is a situation or event that the person finds overwhelming, such as:

  • Aging, loss of health or independence
  • Death of a loved one
  • Serious physical illness
  • Emotional trauma
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Unemployment or money problems

Risk factors for suicide in teenagers include:

  • Family member who completed suicide
  • History of being neglected or abused
  • Domestic abuse
  • Dropping out of school
  • Bullying
  • Social isolation
  • Access to guns
  • History of hurting themselves on purpose
  • Romantic breakup

What are the warning signs?

Often, but not always, a person may show certain signs and behaviors before a suicide attempt, such as:

  • Having trouble concentrating or thinking clearly
  • Giving away belongings
  • Talking about going away or the need to “get my affairs in order”
  • Suddenly changing behavior, especially calmness after a period of anxiety
  • Losing interest in activities they used to enjoy
  • Self-destructive behaviors, such as heavily drinking alcohol, using illegal drugs, or cutting their body
  • Pulling away from friends or not wanting to go out
  • Suddenly having trouble in school or work
  • Talking about death or suicide, or even saying that they want to hurt themselves
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or guilty
  • Changing sleep or eating habits
  • Arranging ways to take their own life

What can I do to help?

If the person tells you about his or her suicidal thoughts the first step is to listen. This might be scary, but a patient, non-judgmental listener, can be a great help for a person in distress. Validate the pain the person is feeling. By that you are validating their experience, not the act of suicide.
The next step is to seek help, work with the person to find the help they need. Suggest to them to call the crisis line (1717), use the webchat www.1717.is and/or offer them to book a time with a psychologist, psychiatrist or another mental health professional. If the person is an immediate threat to themselves, accompany them to the emergency room of the psychiatric department or call the emergency services 112.

If a person displays some of the warning signs and you suspect that they might be a risk to themselves but they have not discussed it with you yet, ask. Be direct, but non-accusatory or judgmental. Some people are afraid of bringing up the topic of suicide or suicidal thoughts and think that it might give the person ideas. There is however no evidence that talking about suicide increases the risk of suicide. On the contrary, talking about it, listening and showing support have been shown to be a protective factor for people having suicidal thoughts.

Do not try to argue with the person having suicidal thoughts. They most often feel isolated, alone and/or misunderstood. Arguing, shaming or getting angry at them only supports that believe. Showing support, empathy and understanding, is the greatest gift you can give and could save a life.

Where can I turn to?

1717 ókeypis + trúnaður + alltaf opið