How to support members who self-harm
Self-harm is more common than many people realise, and it affects a lot of young people.
If you find yourself needing to support someone who is self-harming, it can feel difficult. You might not be confident about what you should do or feel uncertain about what to do or say.
Our guidance will help you feel better equipped to support someone who self-harms.
Remember the safeguarding team at HQ is always here to help you. It’s important that you report any concerns you have about self-harm or disclosures you’re made aware of to our safeguarding team.
If it’s an emergency situation and someone is injured, contact the emergency services and administer first aid before you do anything else.
What is self-harm?
Self-harm is when a person deliberately hurts themselves as a way of dealing with difficult thoughts, experiences, and feelings. It describes any way in which someone might injure themselves or put themselves at risk.
Self-harm can affect anyone, no matter their background or identity. There is no one typical person who self-harms.
Everyone’s experience of self-harm is unique, it’s important that we don’t ever label self-harm as 'attention seeking behaviour'. Self-harming can mean that the person is suffering from intense emotional distress or trying to cope with difficult experiences and is often linked to mental health difficulties, such as anxiety and depression. Read more about mental health conditions.
If someone is self-harming, it does not always mean they feel suicidal, although it is a risk factor for suicide. Be careful not to say anything that may make the person feel ashamed about their self-harming.
As members of Girlguiding, you might be in situations at meetings, trips and events where you spot injuries or signs of self-harm. Here are some signs and behaviours that can indicate that someone is hurting themselves.
- Cuts, bruises, burns, or loss of hair or eyelashes that can’t be explained when asked.
- Wearing long or baggy clothes to cover arms and legs when it doesn’t match the weather.
- Signs of overall poor mental health such depression or high levels of anxiety.
- Changes to behaviour like becoming withdrawn, not wanting to speak to others, secrecy or disappearing at times of high emotion.
- Increasing isolation or unwillingness to engage.
- Avoiding changing clothes or undressing in front of others.
- Signs of low self-esteem, for example, speaking about not being good enough or worthless, or self-blaming.
- Expressing self-loathing or wanting to punish themselves.
- Expressing suicidal thoughts or saying they don’t want to live anymore.
These signs don’t always mean that someone is self-harming. Self-harm doesn’t always involve visible wounds and some people might not show any of the signs on this list. But do look out for behaviour changes and other indications that might be cause for concern.
Acts of self-harm could include:
- Cutting, scratching, biting, picking, or burning skin
- Punching or hitting themself
- Excessive hair pulling or plucking
- Poisoning, for example with tablets or liquids
- Over-eating or under-eating
- Overdosing on tablets or medication
- Exercising too much
- Inserting objects into their body
- Deliberately getting into fights or dangerous situations to get hurt.
These are examples of possible harms, but it does not include every possible form of self-harm, there might be other ways that people choose to hurt themselves.
What do you do if you’re worried someone is self-harming?
If you think someone might be self-harming, or you’re told that they are, it can be hard to know what do to. How you approach the situation, and what you say to them, will depend on their age.
The safeguarding team are here to support you throughout this process, the first step is to have a conversation with the young person. After talking to the young member contact the safeguarding team by emailing [email protected] who will decide the next steps with you.
You can also contact the safeguarding team before you talk the young person if you need extra support before having the conversation.
In a situation where a young person tells you that they are self-harming, or you feel very certain that they are, in most cases you should talk to their parent or carer. But if you have any concerns about this or think it might put the child at more risk, talk to the safeguarding team before taking any action.
If you’re aware that someone self-harms, then it is possible that they are under the care of a mental health team. If this is the case, you could ask if they have a safety plan they could share with you that you can adapt for Girlguiding activities.
If and you notice signs of past self-harm and you, or another volunteer with you, know the young member well, have a conversation with the young member. If following this you are still concerned about the young member, please report to the safeguarding team. You can talk to a safeguarding practitioner and together plan the next appropriate steps and if further support is needed.
If they don’t have, or don’t want to share, a safety plan with you, you can use the Girlguiding wellbeing action plan with them to discuss how you can support them.
Contact the safeguarding team
- Telephone, Monday to Friday, 9am-5pm: 02078 346242 ext. 3037
- Out of hours emergency phone: 07508 032997. This phone is operated from 5pm to 10pm from Monday to Friday, and from 9am to 10pm on a Saturday and Sunday. Don’t text this number as the team can’t access messages.
- Email: [email protected]
Talking to someone about self-harm
Asking directly, but casually, about anything that worries you can help you get more information. For example, during an activity, discreetly saying 'That’s a lovely picture you’ve drawn, you’re doing really well with this! I’ve noticed those scratches on your arm, they look sore, what happened?'
Their response will help you judge if this is something to be concerned about.
It’s then best to take any concerns straight to their parent or carer. They might already be aware of these signs or behaviour and have done something themselves, like making a referral to a mental health team. Once you have spoken to them, contact the safeguarding team who can share local and national resources that can help support you and the family. If you are concerned about the way that family have reacted or have handled the situation, then share this with the safeguarding team at HQ.
Brownies and Guides
For this age group, you should use what you know about the child and your relationship with them to decide who to speak to first. If you feel able, you could speak to the young person first, or you might go directly to their parents or carers.
As with all concerns, if you are unsure, you can speak to the safeguarding team for advice. If you speak to the young member about the self-harming, you’ll need to let them know that you have a duty to inform their parent or carer of your concerns. Then they can decide if they want to join you for that conversation or choose not to be present.
Following the conversation with the parents or carers, contact the safeguarding team who can provide support and guidance.
As girls in Rangers are older, if you have a good relationship with her and feel able to do this, have the initial conversation with the girl first. You can then find out whether her parents or carers know about the situation and if they don’t how it can be shared with them. It may be that the Ranger wants you to tell the parents together, or maybe she wants you to speak to them alone, or she wants to speak to them and then you follow up. Ultimately if the young person is at risk of continuing to harm themselves, the parents, as the main carers, need to know.
If you are in Scotland and the Ranger is 16 or over, remember as they’re considered an adult so you’ll need permission from the girl before you can talk to her parents or carers. If you consider her to be a risk to herself, it may be that you need to tell her you are going to speak to her parents and offer to do it with them.
If you are not sure what to do or are worried, our Safeguarding team can talk it through with you. After speaking to the young member and/or parents or carers, contact the Safeguarding team for more support and guidance.
Self-harm doesn’t just affect young people. If you have a concern about another volunteer, if you feel comfortable, and it’s appropriate to do so, talk to the volunteer to check in and see what support, if any, they have in place.
You should then contact the safeguarding team who can share resources with you and help you decide on next actions. The safeguarding team will also consider if further steps need to be taken to safeguard the volunteer, for example if an adult wellbeing action plan or adjustment plan needs to be put in place
When you ask an adult about their self-harming, they might not appreciate the questions or want to talk to you but do let them know that there is support available. Be clear that there's no shame in having experience self-harm, but sometimes visible signs of self-harm can be triggering for others. Making this less likely to happens makes it easier for everyone.
- As with any safeguarding disclosure, don’t make unrealistic promises about confidentiality. Remember this is not an allegation, so don’t treat the conversation like an interview. Be supportive and spend more time listening than talking
- Try not to panic, overreact, be judgmental or make assumptions. You might be worried but remember that the way you react is going to affect the person
- Validate their feelings. Try to acknowledge how difficult this must be to talk about
- Be careful about discouraging self-harm or telling them they need to stop. This can add to the guilt and negative feelings they might already be feeling. Do not assume they want to stop, as the self-harm is often meeting an emotional need.
- Use open questions so you can find out more context from the person’s own words. Self-harm is often part of a bigger overall picture.
- It’s important not to label or dismiss self-harm as 'attention seeking'. Your conversation with them could be their first step of a journey to recovery.
- Have empathy and understanding. Let them know you’re there for them, this can help them with the anxiety about talking about their self-harm.
- Be supportive, but not pushy. Empower them to have control over their own decisions.
- Respond calmly and clearly identify next steps. Acknowledge how difficult this conversation must have been and follow up with your next steps promptly, including informing the safeguarding team so that relevant support and guidance can be given.
- Remember the person is more than their self-harm, so when talking don’t just focus on their self-harming behaviours.
Advice for residentials in the UK
If you know, before you go away, that a member struggles with self-harm then you need to contact the safeguarding team.
They can help you to risk assess the likelihood of them self-harming whilst away on the residential. Then you can work on an inclusion adjustment plan and a dynamic risk assessment plan. Agree in advance on roles and responsibilities, for example, who will look after the young member in a self-harm incident, who will look after the rest of the group and who will contact the parents or carers? The parents or carers should be involved with these plans, as advised in the Going on residentials guidance. If it’s age appropriate the young member should contribute.
If it’s not possible to talk to our team, then think about the persons current mental health and wellbeing so you can assess the risk of them self-harming on the trip. Follow the guidance for talking about self-harm, and use the Approaching sensitive conversations webpage if you need extra guidance. Carry out a dynamic risk assessment, then report to the safeguarding team as soon as possible.
Here are some things to consider as you carry out a dynamic risk assessment:
- Consider what triggers the self-harm. If it’s appropriate, you can talk to the person and see if they can recognise their triggers. You’ll need to then consider how you can manage this.
- Explore their methods of self-harm. How do they do it and what do they use? Do they have access to these methods on the trip? If they do, remove any items or medication that can be used to cause self-harm.
- Consider how their emotional state has been on the trip. Have you noticed any differences?
- Talk to them about coping mechanisms. What helps them when they're is feeling low? Is there someone they can talk to when she feels like self-harming? Is there something they can do which distracts her?
- Think about the impact on the other members, what could they be exposed to? Do they need any support? Could this be triggering for anyone else?
- Is the member on any medication? Have they been taking it correctly? Who has the medication? Is it being stored safely?
It could be helpful to include parents or carers as you do this, as they may be able to identify triggers and coping mechanisms. Following this risk assessment, you could consider filling in a wellbeing action plan to record the support offered, or if you don’t feel able to manage the risk, you can consider if the young members parents need to collect them.
If someone harms themselves on a residential then your priority is getting them medical attention or providing first aid. You’ll also need to carry out a risk assessment and contact their parents or carers to let them know what has happened.
If at any point you feel that the person is a danger to themselves or anyone else, then immediately call the emergency services. Then, when you can, call the safeguarding team at HQ to make them aware of the situation. They can help you assess the risks and give you useful advice and signposting to support. If the parents or carers give permission, then the Safeguarding team can make referrals to relevant services.
Advice for international residentials
It’s important to consider the country you’re visiting and how they might approach self-harm there. This could increase or decrease the risk. For information on this check the government advice on foreign travel for those with mental health issues. We understand this is a big responsibility and an adjustment plan should be put together before the trip. You will need to include this as part of your risk assessment and decide if there are reasonable adjustments that make it safe for the young member to travel.
Most travel insurance policies don’t cover self-harm. This means they would not pay the medical bill for someone attending hospital because of a self-harm injury. It is important to check what your travel insurance says. If it's not covered, the financial impact of this needs to be taken into consideration as part of your risk assessment and provision made within your event budget. If you have any questions or concerns about this, contact the insurance team [email protected].
If someone does self-harm while on an international trip, you need to provide first aid, contact emergency services if they’re needed, do a risk assessment, inform the parents or carers and then contact our safeguarding team for advice.
You should also look at the local government’s guidance as this may influence your response.
More information and support
Young Minds: Find out what self-harm means and what to do if you think you are affected by it, providing free, 24/7 crisis support across the UK as well as advice and support for parents and carers. Parents helpline: freephone 0808 802 5544 (Mon – Fri 9:30-4pm).
Alumina: free online self-harm support for 11-19s.
Harmless: Self-harm support providing a range of services including, information, training, and consultancy to people who self-harm.
Mind: Explains self-harm, including possible causes and how you can access treatment and support. Includes tips for helping yourself, and guidance for friends and family.
Self-injury Support: UK-wide self-harm and self-injury charity offering direct support, reliable information, expert training, and specialist consultancy.
MeeTwo app (Google Play or App Store): A free app for teenagers providing peer support and resources. Young people can share what's going on for them and send supportive messages to others. All messages are fully moderated.
Calm Harm app: A free app to help young people manage self-harm urges through distraction techniques.
Kooth: A free online chat and emotional well-being platform for children and young people. Accessible through mobile, tablet and desktop.
The Mix: Articles and discussion boards on many topics that affect young people under 25. Also offers a helpline, counselling services and peer to peer support.
HopelineUK: Advisers work with you to understand why these thoughts of suicide might be present, providing you with a safe space to talk through anything happening in your life that could be impacting on your or anyone else’s ability to stay safe.